“Understanding organic dust is extremely important, because these materials are more resistant to destruction during reentry, and some may have been delivered intact to the young Earth, which led to the emergence of life, – says Michael Mumma, director of the Goddard Astrobiology and co-operation. – These observations open a new window to understanding the poorly known part of cometary organics. ”

An international team of scientists using the Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array Atacama (ALMA) has made an incredible three-dimensional images of ghostly atmospheres surrounding the comet ISON and Lemmon. These new observations reveal the mystery of intriguing organic compounds in the clouds of comets.

Comets contain some of the oldest and most pristine material in our solar system. Understanding of their unique chemical composition can tell a lot about the birth of our planet and the origin of organic compounds that are the building blocks of life. High-resolution observations at the ALMA observatory provided an excellent three-dimensional perspective of the distribution of molecules in the atmospheres of the two comets, or komah.

“We have reached the first of its kind mapping of important molecules that help us understand the nature of comets,” – said the head of the group, Martin Cordiner, astrohimik of the Catholic University of America.

Important three-dimensional observation of the ALMA observatory have been made by combining two-dimensional high-resolution images with high-resolution spectra obtained on the basis of the three most important organic molecules – hydrogen cyanide (HCN), hydrogen isocyanide (HNC) and formaldehyde (H2CO). These spectra were taken at each point in each image. They determined not only by the presence of the molecule, but also their speed, which helped to recreate the third dimension, showing the depth of the cometary atmosphere.

Recent results have shown that HCN gas flows outwardly from the core uniformly in all directions, while HNC concentrated in clumps and streams. Resolution ALMA will better define these bunches moving in different regions of the comet’s coma, with accuracy up to an hour. This made it clear that the molecules HNC and H2CO actually formed in a coma and lead further evidence that HNC can be formed at the break large molecules or organic dusts.

«ALMA is not only possible to determine the individual molecules in a coma, but also gave us the opportunity to determine their location with high accuracy,” – says Anthony Remiyya, one of the co-operation.


The image above shows the emissions of organic molecules in the atmosphere of the comet ISON, as it saw the ALMA

These observations are also important because the modest comet like Lemmon and ISON contain relatively low concentrations of these important molecules, which makes it very difficult to study them with the help of ground-based telescopes. Several comprehensive studies of this type were carried out only on an extremely bright comets like Hale-Bopp.

Visualization of three-dimensional distribution of organic molecules HCN in the atmosphere of the comet Lemmon


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