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Comets May Have Introduced Interstellar Chemicals to Earth
Ί T R U S T N O O N E Ί
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Things to beware of in 1997:
Adverse and unusual weather changes which have a tendancy to coincide
with operations of govermental projects dealing with the ionosphere.
For Immediate Release October 9, 1996
Contact: Art Clifford (413)545-6560
UMass Astronomers Report Comets May Have Introduced Interstellar
Chemicals to Earth
AMHERST, Mass. -- The brightest comet of 1996 -- Comet Hyakutake --
may have shed some new light on a question that astronomers have
asked for centuries, "what is a comet made of?" Many scientists believe
that the volatile components of comets are the nearest things we know to
material untouched since the time of the formation of the Solar System,
and so provide a record of the conditions that prevailed in our primitive
Writing in the latest issue of the journal Nature (Oct. 3, 1996), University
of Massachusetts radio astronomer William Irvine and colleagues
suggest, based on recent observations of Comet Hyakutake, that comets
consist of the same material that made the stars themselves, and these
dramatic celestial objects may have been a source of some organic
materials on Earth. Irvine, along with UMass colleague Peter Schloerb
and UMass doctoral candidate Amy Lovell, help organize an
international team that used radio telescopes to observe Comet
Hyakutake when it blazed across the sky in the spring of 1996. Millions of
non-scientists also viewed Comet Hyakutake with only binoculars or the
unaided eye, as it made a spectacular pass near planet Earth.
Comets are small celestial bodies that orbit the sun and thought to
consist mostly of dust particles and icy materials -- what some
astronomers informally refer to as "dirty snowballs."
Irvine says that the observational evidence from viewing Hyakutake by
several powerful radio telescopes positioned around the world --
including the 14 meter Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory
located near Amherst -- suggests that it contains some of the same
material found deep in interstellar space.
"The detection of hydrogen isocyanide (HNC) in Comet Hyakutake
supports the idea that interstellar gases were incorporated into the
nucleus of this and other comets," says Irvine. Interestingly, the hydrogen
isocyanide was found in the same ratio to another molecule -- hydrogen
cyanide (HCN) -- as that observed in interstellar clouds.
This measurement supports the idea that interstellar gases were
incorporated into the nucleus of this and other comets, perhaps as ices
frozen onto interstellar grains.
Scientists know that material found in interstellar clouds -- such as
hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen -- form the basic chemistry of life
as we know it. Some astronomers have theorized that comets could have
been a delivery mechanism for pre-biological organic matter that
ultimately helped develop, or even triggered life on Earth.
Irvine and Schloerb explain that organic molecules might have
congregated into comets in interstellar space billions of years ago.
Identifying the exotic gases and solid particles found in comets could tell
us much about the conditions under which the solar system, and
especially Earth, were formed.
Irvine says that most astronomers believe the chemical and physical
processes that helped set the stage for the origin of life on earth occurred
over some ten billion years before the formation of the Earth.
"Chemical and physical processes relevant to the origin of life have been
taking place ever since the beginning of the universe, roughly 15 billion
years ago," says Irvine. "It's interesting to note that with the exception of
phosphorus, the chemical elements of which we are made -- hydrogen,
carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur -- are among the most abundant in
Irvine says that largely as a result of extensive observations using radio
telescopes, a rich and complex chemistry is known to exist in dense
Does the presence of organic materials in comets make it likely that life
also formed in other parts of the universe? The answer isn't clear.
Irvine believes that the nature of the Earth might have been much more
influenced by interstellar material than has been believed.
"The basic building blocks of life are out there," Irvine says, "and at least
some of the organic matter in comets and meteorites has reached, and
continues to reach, the surface of the Earth relatively unaltered."
Editor's note: UMass Professor William Irvine, until recently, served as
director of the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory. He may be
reached at (413) 545-0733 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professor Peter Schloerb, current director of FCRAO may be reached at
(413) 545-4303 or email@example.com.
The hypertext version of this news release may be found at
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