Picturesque poison

Eso_potw1907a_1024

eso_potw1907a February 18th, 2019

Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); M. Cordiner, NASA/CUA

In December 2018, the comet 46P/Wirtanen passed within 11.6 million kilometres of the Earth about 30 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. This close pass gave astronomers the chance to observe the comet in detail, and ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) took full advantage. ALMAs speciality is observing the cooler components of the Universe, such as gas and dust, and the array often focuses on specific molecules. This image is no exception, as it highlights one key thing: the hydrogen cyanide gas in the coma around the comets nucleus. But why would scientists be looking for an infamous poison? Well, it turns out that hydrogen cyanide is as common as mystery novels have led us to believe throughout the cosmos, at least! Because its a simple organic molecule that forms relatively easily, its been observed in comets, stellar atmospheres, and the clouds of dust and gas that exist between stars. This image builds on those observations by showing clearly the hydrogen cyanide emanating from the nucleus of this comet. Further ALMA observations showed that other, more complex organic molecules were present, too. This matters because, while it may be poisonous to many organisms on Earth today, hydrogen cyanide may have played an important role in getting life started on Earth. Its very reactive, so it easily interacts with surrounding chemicals to create new molecules including some of those essential for life, such as amino acids. One theory posits that hydrogen cyanide, brought here in part by comets, jump-started organic chemistry here on Earth, eventually leading to the beginning of life. ALMAs imaging of 46P/Wirtanen further supports the idea that comets could have brought this life-giving material to the early Earth.

Provider: European Southern Observatory

Image Source: https://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1907a/

Curator: European Southern Observatory, Garching bei München, None, Germany

Image Use Policy: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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Image Details

Image Type
Observation
Object Name
46P/Wirtanen
Subject - Solar System
Interplanetary Body > Comet > Coma

Color Mapping

  Telescope Spectral Band Wavelength
Arrow_left_pseudocolor Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (Band 7) Millimeter (HCN) 845.7 µm
Spectrum_ir1
Arrow_top_pseudocolor
Eso_potw1907a_1280
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ID
potw1907a
Subject Category
A.2.2.2  
Subject Name
46P/Wirtanen
Credits
ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); M. Cordiner, NASA/CUA
Release Date
2019-02-18T06:00:00
Lightyears
Redshift
Reference Url
https://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1907a/
Type
Observation
Image Quality
Distance Notes
Facility
Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array
Instrument
Band 7
Color Assignment
Pseudocolor
Band
Millimeter
Bandpass
HCN
Central Wavelength
845664
Start Time
Integration Time
Dataset ID
None
Notes
Coordinate Frame
Equinox
Reference Value
Reference Dimension
3000.0, 3000.0
Reference Pixel
Scale
Rotation
Coordinate System Projection:
Quality
FITS Header
Notes
Creator (Curator)
European Southern Observatory
URL
http://www.eso.org
Name
Email
Telephone
Address
Karl-Schwarzschild-Strasse 2
City
Garching bei München
State/Province
None
Postal Code
D-85748
Country
Germany
Rights
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
Publisher
European Southern Observatory
Publisher ID
eso
Resource ID
potw1907a
Metadata Date
2019-01-22T09:42:55-05:00
Metadata Version
1.1
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Detailed color mapping information coming soon...

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There is no distance meta data in this image.