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Comet 67P Produces Own Oxygen In Deep Space

First Posted: May 15, 2017 06:58 AM EDT
Rosetta Spacecraft Rendezvous With Comet
In this handout from the European Space Agency (ESA), the comet Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in a photo taken by the Rosetta spacecraft with the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera.
(Photo : SA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team/Getty Images)

Molecular oxygen may be common on Earth, but it is rarely seen anywhere else in the universe. However, in 2015, it seems that scientists found such oxygen on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Upon being studied by the Rosetta spacecraft, the comet was found to have the "biggest surprise of the mission." Such discovery could even change science's understanding of how the solar system came to be, Space.com noted.

Comets, which are usually frozen lumps of rock and ice, usually become only spectacular when they get closer to the warm sunlight. Upon their thawing, some of the ice vaporizes, and the dust that trail with them are lit up by charged particles of the solar wind, thus showing their bright, streaming tails.

As far as oxygen is concerned, the initial explanation says that the molecules found in the faint envelope of gas surrounding the comet has always been there. Scientists now believe that the oxygen thawed as the comet neared the Sun.

The existence of oxygen anywhere else in the universe had scientists questioning basic understanding of the solar system. However, Caltech chemical engineer Konstantinos P. Giapis explained in his paper for Nature Communications how chemical reactions could also account for the presence of said oxygen molecules.

Earth has a lot of molecular oxygen because plants and other photosynthesizing species can produce it. Elsewhere in the universe, this is unlikely. In fact, the presence of molecular oxygen can be treated as an indicator of extraterrestrial life.

Forbes pointed out that the rarity of molecular oxygen in our universe is somehow paradoxical. Oxygen remains to be the third most abundant element in the universe but is always found in combination of other elements. Among these elements include water or minerals such as silicates. In fact, it has only been observed twice so far in the solar system.

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