Solid phosphorus has been discovered in dust particles collected from a comet

A study led by researchers from the University of Turku in Finland has discovered phosphorus and fluorine in solid dust particles that were collected from a comet. Scientists on the project say that their finding indicates that all the most important elements for life may have been delivered to Earth by comets. The discovery of phosphorus and fluorine in solid dust particles collected from the inner coma of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

That comet orbits the sun every 6.5 years. The samples were collected by the COSIMA instrument aboard the ESA Rosetta spacecraft. That spacecraft tracked the comet at a distance of a few kilometers between September 2014 and September 2016.

While in the vicinity of the comet, the instrument collected dust particles. It also captured among a trio of one centimeter, two-target plate photographs. The particles were selected from the images and measured with a mass spectrometer. The test detected phosphorus ions and solid particles contained in minerals or metallic phosphorus.

Researchers were able to show the apatite minerals aren’t the source of the phosphorus, and the discovery implies phosphorus occurs in some more reduced and possibly soluble form. Researchers also point out that this is the first time that life-necessary elements were discovered in the cometary matter. Life’s necessary elements include carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

The discovery indicates that cometary delivery is a potential source of the elements required for life on the young Earth. Researchers on the project also detected fluorine with CF+ secondary ions originating from the cometary dust. Its characteristics in a cometary environment are unknown. The study was led by the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Turku in Finland and was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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