Alien water may have been found on interstellar comet Borisov

By Jonathan O’Callaghan Comet Borisov is an interstellar visitorNASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)Astronomers say they have detected a tell-tale trace of water on comet 2I/Borisov, the first known interstellar comet. If confirmed, it will be the first time water from another planetary system has been detected inside our solar system. Since comet Borisov was…

Alien water may have been found on interstellar comet Borisov

By Jonathan O’Callaghan

Comet Borisov

Comet Borisov is an interstellar visitor

NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

Astronomers say they have detected a tell-tale trace of water on comet 2I/Borisov, the first known interstellar comet. If confirmed, it will be the first time water from another planetary system has been detected inside our solar system.

Since comet Borisov was discovered in late August, astronomers have been racing to observe it in detail before it hurtles away following its closest approach to the sun in early December. We have already detected gas in the form of cyanogen being ejected from the comet’s surface, something common to comets in our own solar system.

But Adam McKay from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, US and colleagues hit the jackpot. They used an instrument at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico to study the light reflected by comet Borisov earlier this month, and found large amounts of oxygen around the comet, possibly a result of water ice turning, or sublimating, from solid to gas as it is heated by the sun.

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“If a water molecule sublimates off the surface, it gets released as water vapor,” says McKay. From there, ultraviolet light from the sun will break the molecule apart into hydrogen and oxygen, which is what the team detected.

The team’s findings suggest that the comet is currently producing up to 19 kilograms of water per second. Alan Fitzsimmons from Queen’s University Belfast says the observation is a clear detection of oxygen molecules that points to the comet containing water.

While we have detected water outside the solar system before – such as in atmospheres of exoplanets or in star-forming nebulae – we have never seen water from another planetary system this close. “This would be the first package of water from another planetary system,” says Fitzsimmons.

There are other explanations, however, notably that the oxygen could be coming from carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, which will require further observations to check. But the activity of the comet so far as it approaches the sun is more consistent with what we’d expect from water.

And McKay notes that studying the composition of such water ice could give us a fascinating insight into other planetary systems. “Are we special as a planetary system or are a lot of planetary systems like ours?” he says. “That has implications for the origin of life, and how common life is throughout the universe.”

Reference: https://arxiv.org/abs/1910.12785

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