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Under the leadership of astrophysicist Kathrin Altwegg, Bernese researchers have found an explanation for why very little nitrogen could previously be accounted for in the nebulous covering of comets: the building block for life predominantly occurs in the form of ammonium salts, the occurrence of which could not previously be measured. The salts may be a further indication that comet impacts may have made life on Earth possible in the first place.
More than 30 years ago, the European comet mission Giotto flew past Halley's comet. The Bernese ion mass spectrometer IMS, led by Prof. em. Hans Balsiger, was on board. A key finding from the measurements taken by this instrument was that there appeared to be a lack of nitrogen in Halley's coma—the nebulous covering of comets which forms when a comet passes close to the sun. Although nitrogen (N) was discovered in the form of ammonia (NH3) and hydrocyanic acid (HCN), the incidence was far removed from the expected cosmic incidence. More than 30 years later, researchers have solved this mystery thanks to a happy accident. This is a result of the analysis of data from the Bernese mass spectrometer ROSINA, which collected data on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, called Chury for short, on board the ESA space probe Rosetta (see info box below).
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Less than a month before the end of the Rosetta mission, the space probe was just 1.9 km above the surface of Chury as it flew through a dust cloud from the comet. This resulted in a direct impact of dust in the ion source of the mass spectrometer ROSINA-DFMS (Rosetta Orbiter Sensor for Ion and Neutral Analysis-Double Focusing Mass Spectrometer), led by the University of Bern. Kathrin Altwegg, lead researcher on ROSINA and co-author of the new study published today in the prestigious journal Nature...
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