Rosetta's Comet contains glycine, a key ingredient in the creation of life, astronomers found. In addition to this simple amino acid, the spacecraft also detected signs of phosphorus, another essential element within living bodies.
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, commonly known as 67/P or Rosetta's Comet, was found to release the materials as it approached the sun.
Astronomers and biologists have long wondered where the basic ingredients for life came from during the early days of Earth. Many researchers suggested these chemicals, as well as fresh water, may have been delivered to our planet from comets colliding with Earth. Contemporary studies have shown that these frozen bodies likely did not deliver enough water to fill our oceans. However, the basic building blocks of life still may have come from these visitors from space.
Glycine, commonly found in proteins, has never been detected in the interstellar medium. This is the first time the amino acid has been confirmed in the coma, or tenuous atmosphere, of a comet. This chemical is hard to detect, as it does not react with most other chemicals.
The Stardust mission detected evidence of glycine surrounding Comet Wild 2004 in 2004. However, contamination of the detector could not be ruled out.
The ROSINA instrument onboard the Rosetta spacecraft was utilized to detect the cometary amino acid.
"The multitude of organic molecules already identified by ROSINA, now joined by the exciting confirmation of fundamental ingredients like glycine and phosphorus, confirms our idea that comets have the potential to deliver key molecules for prebiotic chemistry," said Matt Taylor, project scientist for Rosetta at the European Space Agency (ESA).
Glycine is the only amino acid known that can form without the presence of liquid water. The spacecraft also detected two other chemicals, methylamine and ethylamine, precursors to the amino acid. Judging by the ration of glycine to dust, investigators believe the chemical may be released from the surface of comets as they heat up while approaching the sun.
The Rosetta mission was launched in part to search for amino acids and other organic compounds, which may have played a role in the development of life here on Earth. Phosphorus is also found within the structures of both DNA and RNA.
Discovery of glycine within the coma of Rosetta's Comet was published in the journal Science Advances.