Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Ann Arbor, Michigan: Evidence of atomic nitrogen in interstellar gas clouds suggests that pre-life molecules may be present in comets, a discovery that gives a clue about the early conditions that gave rise to life, according to researchers from the University of Michigan and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The finding also substantially changes the understanding of chemistry in space.
The question of why molecular nitrogen hasn't been detected in comets and meteorites has puzzled scientists for years. Because comets are born in the cold, dark, outer reaches of the solar system they are believed to be the least chemically altered during the formation of the Sun and its planets.
Studies of comets are thought to provide a "fossil" record of the conditions that existed within the gas cloud that collapsed to form the solar system a little more than 4.6 billion years ago. In this cloud, since nitrogen was thought to be in molecular form, and it follows that comets should contain molecular nitrogen as well.