Pure oxygen has been detected on the comet for the first time.
The Rosetta Spacecraft has detected molecular oxygen for the first time on Comet 67P/huryumov-Gerasimenko.
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The discovery has opened a new perspective and has made scientists rethink the elements involved in the formation of the solar system.
The discovery is challenging the long established belief that oxygen existed in abundance when the sun and planets were created but should have gone by the time when the comet was formed, soon after the birth of solar system about 4.6 billion years ago.
“It is the most surprising discovery we have made so far in 67P,” said Rosetta scientist Kathrin Altwegg, at the University of Bern in Germany. “The first time we really saw it I think we all went a little bit into denial because ... oxygen was not among the molecules suspected in a cometary coma. All models show that molecular oxygen will react with the hydrogen and will no longer be present.”
"This evidence of oxygen as an ancient substance will likely discredit some theoretical models of the formation of our Solar System.”
Molecular oxygen alongside methane is a key sign of life on Earth. So, the discovery may create doubts in searching extraterrestrial life on distant planets with this common formula of methane and oxygen.
“If we look at exoplanets, our goal of course will be to detect biosignatures, to see if the planet contains life. And as far as I know, so far the combination of methane and O2 was a hint that you have life underneath it. On the comet, we have both methane and O2, but we don’t have life. So it’s probably not a very good biosignature.” Altwegg said.
Scientists at Rosetta spacecraft monitored the ratio of oxygen to water for several months before concluding that chemical element was embedded in the comet not just hanging around in its surface.
“The oxygen has to be present in the whole body. If it were only on the top surface, we would see a decrease over time of the oxygen to H20 ratio.” André Bieler, one of the scientists at Rosetta, said.
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Nevertheless, scientists are not able to figure out how did oxygen survived in the comet for such a long time. As O2 is highly reactive and easily mixes with other elements. Scientists have no answer how the oxygen maintained its pristine state over billions of years.