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Surprising discovery of oxygen in Comet 67P's atmosphere

Surprising discovery of oxygen in Comet 67P's atmosphere
A chemical analysis of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s atmosphere revealed a high proportion of oxygen molecules.
By University of Bern, Switzerland | Published: Wednesday, October 28, 201
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Comet 67P
A color image of Rosetta’s Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko composed of three images taken by the scientific imaging system OSIRIS in the red, green, and blue filters from a distance of 75 miles (120 kilometers).
ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The biggest surprise so far in the chemical analysis of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s atmosphere is the high proportion of oxygen molecules. While such molecules are common in Earth’s atmosphere, their presence on comets had originally been ruled out.

Early on in the mission of the ROSINA mass spectrometer, researchers from the Center for Space and Habitability (CSH) at the University of Bern made an unexpected discovery when analyzing the comet’s gases: Between the expected peak values of sulfur and methanol, clear traces of oxygen molecules were detected.

It turned out that oxygen is in fact the fourth most common gas in the comet’s atmosphere, after water, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. As oxygen is highly reactive chemically, it was previously thought that in the early solar system it must have combined with the abundant hydrogen then present to form water. Nevertheless, oxygen molecules were present on the comet.

“We had never thought that oxygen could survive for billions of years without combining with other substances,” said Kathrin Altwegg, project leader of the ROSINA mass spectrometer.

Invisible from Earth 

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