Statistical ortho-to-para ratio of water desorbed from ice at 10 kelvin

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Science  01 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6268, pp. 65-67
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad4026

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Water isomers hide their origin

H2O exists in two spin isomers, ortho and para, in a ratio of 3:1 at room temperature. Some astronomical observations have found water with a ratio of less than 3, thought to be due to water being photodesorbed from ice that had been formed at very low temperatures (≾30 K). Hama et al. tested this idea in the laboratory, by forming water ice at low temperature and then photodesorbing it to measure the ortho:para ratio. They found a ratio of 3, even at 10 K. Thus, another explanation for the low ratios in some astronomical objects must be found.

Science, this issue p. 65


The anomalously low ortho-to-para ratios (OPRs) exhibited by gaseous water in space have been used to determine the formation temperature (<50 kelvin) of ice on cold interstellar dust. This approach assumes that the OPR of water desorbed from ice is related to the ice formation temperature on the dust. However, we report that water desorbed from ice at 10 kelvin shows a statistical high-temperature OPR of 3, even when the ice is produced in situ by hydrogenation of O2, a known formation process of interstellar water. This invalidates the assumed relation between OPR and temperature. The necessary reinterpretation of the low OPRs will help elucidate the chemical history of interstellar water from molecular clouds and processes in the early solar system, including comet formation.

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