NASA’s Airborne Telescope made another major discovery just months after confirming the presence of water on the sunny surfaces of the Moon. SOFIAthe last find refers to the gasoline left behind by an icy comet that flew over Earth in 2016 from its origins on the outskirts of our solar system. Using one of its infrared instruments, the telescope was able to detect carbon – a key ingredient in life – in the dusty glow of Comet Catalina’s tail.
The Heavenly Visitor, who was briefly visible to astronomers before passing in front of the Sun and out of sight, is now helping scientists unravel the mysteries of our own origins. NASA has said that comets could have provided carbon to the planets during the early formation of our solar system, when Earth may have struggled to capture enough of the vital element due to the carbon depleting effects of primordial heat.
In comparison, cooler gas giants like Jupiter and Neptune could have supported carbon in the outer solar system. Additionally, Jupiter’s giant size may have acted as a gravitational barrier, preventing carbon from mixing in the inner solar system where terrestrial planets like Earth are located, according to the space agency.
“Carbon is essential for discovering the origins of life,” said Charles “Chick” Woodward, astrophysicist and professor at the Minnesota Institute of Astrophysics at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. “We still don’t know if the Earth could have sequestered enough carbon on its own during its formation, so the carbon-rich comets could have been an important source providing this essential element that led to life as we now see it. know.
Comet Catalina originated in the Oort Cloud at the edge of our solar system. Due to their long orbits, these types of cosmic snowballs arrive at our doorstep virtually unchanged, or “frozen in time,” giving researchers a rare chance to learn about the early solar system.
“All terrestrial worlds are subject to the impacts of comets and other small bodies, which carry carbon and other elements,” said Woodward. “We are getting closer to the exact understanding of how these impacts on the early planets may have catalyzed life.”
NASA adds that it needs to capture more comets to confirm if there are more carbon-rich comets in the Oort cloud to further support its theory. SOFIA, which stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is an airborne observatory in a Boeing 747SP. The aircraft flies the 100-inch (2.5-meter) telescope at 45,000 feet into the atmosphere where it surveys the far infrared band of the electromagnetic spectrum. New results from SOFIA, a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, were recently published in the Journal of Planetary Sciences.