Comet research provides insight into the chemical composition of the early solar system

New comet study provides insight into the chemical composition of the early solar system

Data from 25 comets have been compiled to test predictions of the formation and evolution of the solar system.

ORLANDO, November 4, 2022 – A new study from the University of Central Florida has found strong support that the outgassing of molecules from comets may be the result of composition since the beginning of our solar system.

The results were published today in The Planetary Science Journal.

The study was led by Olga Harrington Pinto, a doctoral student in UCF’s Department of Physics, part of the College of Science.

According to Harrington Pinto, measuring the ratio of certain molecules present after comets have degassed can provide information about the chemical makeup of early solar systems and the physical processing of comets after they formed. Outgassing occurs when comets, which are small bodies of dust, rock, and ice in the solar system, heat up and start releasing gases.

As part of his research thesis, Harrington Pinto compiled the amounts of water, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide of 25 comets to test predictions of the formation and evolution of the solar system.

This made it possible to study almost twice as much carbon monoxide/carbon dioxide data on comets. The measurements come from various scientific publications. She carefully combined the data obtained with different telescopes and different research teams when the measurements were simultaneous, and she was able to confirm that the data were all well-calibrated.

“One of the most interesting results is that comets far away from the sun with orbits in the Oort cloud that have never, or only rarely, orbited near the sun, have been seen to produce more CO2 than CO in their coma, whereas comets that have traveled far more near the Sun behave the opposite,” says Harrington Pinto. “This had never been conclusively seen before.”

“Interestingly, the data is consistent with predictions that comets that trailed very far from the sun in the Oort cloud may have been so bombarded by cosmic rays on their surface that they created an outer layer. CO depleted,” said Harrington Pinto. said. “Then, after their first or second trip near the sun, this processed outer layer is blown off by the sun, revealing a much more pristine comet composition that releases much more CO.”

The researcher says the next stage of work is to analyze the first sightings of centaurs her team made with the James Webb Space Telescope to directly measure carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and compare the results with this study.

Work on this project was partially funded by the Astronomical Sciences Division of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program through the NSF E-Learning Grant, The Foundation Brinson and the Moore Foundation.

Harrington Pinto received his Master of Science in Physics from the University of South Florida. She worked on this study with Maria Womack, professor of courtesy at UCF; Yanga R. Fernandez, professor at UCF; and James Bauer, professor at the University of Maryland.

Contributed by: Beatriz Nina Ribeiro Oliveira, UCF Office of Research

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