Water-soluble phosphorus, which could play a key role in the origin of biological molecules, was discovered in the inner coma of comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Scientists from the University of Turku (Finland) have discovered solid phosphorus in comet dust, as published in their newly published study in the academic journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. According to the team, this is “the first time that CHNOPS elements necessary for life have been discovered in a solid financial matter.”
CHNOPS is an acronym for the six key elements for life on Earth: carbon (C), hydrogen (H), nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), phosphorus (P), and sulfur (S). Their combinations make up the vast majority of biological molecules on our planet and together they represent nearly 98% of the living matter on Earth.
There is a theory that it could have been comets that brought these essential elements to early Earth and scientists had previously found the other five elements in comets, but not soluble phosphorus in water, what it could play a fundamental role in the origin of biological molecules.
The team found this type of phosphorus, as well as fluorine, in the inner coma of the cometa 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko. They were present in solid particles collected a few kilometers from the comet by the Eila Rosetta Ion Mass Analyzer (COSIMA) instrument.
How did they study it?
The particles were collected on the instrument’s target plates and photographed remotely. The individual particles on the images were then selected and measured with a mass spectrometer. All of this was done from Earth before Rosetta ended its mission with a controlled collision with Comet 67P in late September 2016.
So, the team came for the first time phosphorus ions in solid particles in metallic minerals or phosphorus. “We have shown that apatite minerals are not a source of phosphorus, suggesting that the phosphorus found may be produced in a reduced and soluble form,” quotes project leader Harry Lehto, of the Department of Physics and Science, Science. Astronomy from the University of Turku.
Phosphorus has been previously found in comets, but the newly discovered phosphorus is in a more suitable form for the formation of biological molecules. As the authors write in their article, “In the process of life formation, water-soluble reactive phosphorus compounds were required to convert nucleotide precursors by phosphorylation into active nucleotides.”
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