Surprise discovery suggests ‘gentle’ start for Solar System

Source: BBC

The Rosetta spacecraft has discovered molecular oxygen in the cloud of gas surrounding the comet it is tracking.

The discovery has come as a complete surprise to scientists who thought that oxygen would have reacted with other elements as planets were forming.

The results indicate that current ideas about how our Solar System formed may be wrong.

The study has been published in the journal, Nature.

Researchers used Rosetta’s Rosina instrument to “sniff” the atmosphere around Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as the probe trailed the icy body over a six-month period.

Surprise gas

They found that free oxygen was the fourth most common gas around the comet, after water vapour, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

One of the scientists involved, Professor Kathrin Altwegg of Bern University said that the scientists involved in the study thought the result was a mistake when they first saw the data.

“When we first saw it, we went a little bit into denial because it is not what you would expect to find on a comet,” she said.

That is because oxygen reacts very easily with other elements to form compounds, rather than stay in its unique form. The researchers suggest that oxygen must have been frozen very quickly and became trapped in clumps of material early on in the formation of the Solar System.

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