Molecular nitrogen in comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko indicates a low formation temperature

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Science  10 Apr 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6231, pp. 232-235
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa6100

Making comets in the cold

The speciation of nitrogen compounds in comets can tell us about their history. Comets are some of the most ancient bodies in the solar system and should contain the nitrogen compounds that were abundant when they formed. Using the ROSINA mass spectrometer aboard the Rosetta spacecraft orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rubin et al. found molecular nitrogen at levels that are depleted compared to those in the primordial solar system. Depletion of such a magnitude suggests that the comet formed either from the low-temperature agglomeration of pristine amorphous water ice grains or from clathrates.

Science, this issue p. 232


Molecular nitrogen (N2) is thought to have been the most abundant form of nitrogen in the protosolar nebula. It is the main N-bearing molecule in the atmospheres of Pluto and Triton and probably the main nitrogen reservoir from which the giant planets formed. Yet in comets, often considered the most primitive bodies in the solar system, N2 has not been detected. Here we report the direct in situ measurement of N2 in the Jupiter family comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, made by the Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis mass spectrometer aboard the Rosetta spacecraft. A N2/CO ratio of Embedded Image (2σ standard deviation of the sampled mean) corresponds to depletion by a factor of ~25.4 ± 8.9 as compared to the protosolar value. This depletion suggests that cometary grains formed at low-temperature conditions below ~30 kelvin.

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