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2011 Annual Science Report

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

Composition of Parent Volatiles in Comets: Oxidized Carbon

Project Summary

GCA Co-Investigator Dr. Michael DiSanti continued his work on measuring parent volatiles in comets using high-resolution near-infrared spectroscopy at world class observatories in Hawai’i and Chile. The goal of this work is to build a taxonomy of comets based on ice compositions, which show considerable variation among comets measured to date. DiSanti’s research emphasizes the chemistry of volatile oxidized carbon, in particular the efficiency of converting CO to H2CO and CH3OH on the surfaces of icy interstellar grains, through H-atom addition reactions prior to their incorporation into comets. The work requires planning and conducting observations, processing of spectra, and development and application of fluorescence models for interpretation of observed line intensities. Major strides in these areas were realized during this period of performance.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
2 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

Our studies of native ices in comets (i.e., those contained in the nucleus) have important implications for Astrobiology. These volatiles, which we measure routinely in comets, include several important pre-biotic molecules that are thought to play significant roles in the origin of life on Earth. For example, HCN and NH3 lead to amino acids, H2CO leads to sugars, and CH4 and C2H6 are suggested as respective precursors to the methylamine and ethylamine that were unambiguously identified in Stardust samples returned to Earth from comet 81P/Wild 2.

Co-I DiSanti’s research emphasizes the chemistry of volatile oxidized carbon in comets, in particular the efficiency of converting CO to H2CO and CH3OH on the surfaces of icy interstellar grains, through H-atom addition reactions prior to their incorporation into the nucleus. Laboratory experiments have shown this process to be dependent both on temperatures and H-atom densities in the pre-cometary (interstellar cloud) environment. We see considerable variation among comets, both in abundances of CO, H2CO, and CH3OH (Fig. 1A) and in CO conversion efficiency (Fig. 1B). Such measurements are important for establishing the role of comets in delivering water to Earth along with the seed organic molecules from which life emerged. Our recent observations continue to support compositional diversity among comets (DiSanti and Mumma 2008).

Figure 1A and 1B. ​Fig. 1. A. Abundances (relative to H2O) of oxidized carbon in several comets. Error bars show 1σ uncertainties, and upper limits ( ) are 3σ. The small beams afforded by modern IR spectrometers favor detection of native ices. B. Corresponding CO conversion efficiencies, expressible as the ratio ([H2CO]+[CH3OH])/([CO]+[H2CO]+[CH3OH]), where [] indicates mixing ratio. This approach assumes that formaldehyde and methanol are produced solely from CO, and that they are the only products. It does not include potential loss of CO (e.g., in the subsequent proto-solar environment) or its incorporation into more complex entities (e.g., polymers such as POM).

We have demonstrated continued productivity in our comet research over the past year, both observationally and in terms of interpretation of molecular spectra through continually improving analysis software and through comparison with fluorescence models.


The current progress period featured observational campaigns on two comets: (1) the world-wide effort on Jupiter Family Comet (JFC) 103P/Hartley 2 in support of the EPOXI/DIXI space craft encounter with closest approach of 700 km on 2010 November 4. Our efforts at the Goddard Center for Astrobioloby (GCA) led to a detailed study of the short (hourly/daily, associated with the complex rotation of the nucleus) and long term (seasonal, 2010 Sept. 18 – Dec. 17) behavior of the comet (Mumma et al. 2011). This paper, one of eight featured in a special issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, represents a tremendous effort (> 1 person-year) by people under the GCA umbrella, including several months by Co-I DiSanti (additional details given below). An additional paper, led by GCA scientific collaborator B. Bonev, will map the rotational and spin temperatures of H2O in the coma of comet Hartley 2, with targeted submission to a special issue of Icarus in winter/spring 2012. (2) Since August 2011, our Team is conducting serial observations of long-period comet (LPC) C/2009 P1 (Garradd), which comes to perihelion on 2011 December 23. Observations using three ground-based telescope/instrument combinations (VLT/CRIRES, Keck/NIRSPEC, IRTF/CSHELL) are already in hand that encompass the period 2011 August 7 – October 13, and proposals for post-perihelion observations in observing semester 2012A are pending. A number of papers (2-3) reporting these pre-perihelion observations are in progress, including one led by Co-I DiSanti on the NIRSPEC observations, in which all key primary volatiles were measured in less than two hours of clock time (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. ​Molecular detections in Long-Period Comet 2009 P1 (Garradd) at heliocentric R = 1.84 AU. Modeled emissions from contributing molecules and the dust continuum. “Total” refers to the sum of modeled contributions, while “Residuals” has all of these subtracted from the observed spectrum (black trace at the top of each panel).

Figure 3. ​Same as Fig. 2, but for faint LPC C/2010 G2 (Hill) at R = 2.06 AU. Even these preliminary extracts reveal emissions from (at least) CH4 and C2H6, while less volatile species CH3OH and H2O (as measured through OH) appear absent or at least very weak. This shows the power of NIRSPEC, even for relatively weak comets.

In addition to these extended campaigns, we have papers either nearing submission reporting the compositions of comets we have observed, some within the current performance period:

Figure 4 Top. ​CO and H2O in a moderately productive comet (Qgas=1–2×1029 molecules s-1). Combining four echelle orders provides tight and consistent measures of rotational temperature.

Figure 4 Bottom. ​Combined observations in the region sampling H2CO and H2O (through OH), obtained on UT 2009 Jan. 30 – Feb 01. Combining KL2 and KL3 settings provides excellent signal-to-noise in their overlap region (between approximately 2792 – 2775 cm-1), even for the low H2CO abundance in Comet Lulin (Gibb et al.).

  • 10P/Tempel 2, JFC measured with NIRSPEC in July and September 2010. A paper is currently in revision (Paganini et al.).
  • C/2010 G2 (Hill), LPC measured with NIRSPEC. This was a back-up target to C/2010 X1 (Elenin), which disrupted and subsequently disintegrated beginning in August 2011, approximately one month prior to its perihelion passage inside 0.5 AU from the Sun. Although 5-6 magnitudes fainter than predictions for Elenin, hyper-volatiles (CH4, C2H6) were clearly seen in Comet Hill (Fig. 3), which had a heliocentric distance R = 2.06 AU. These results demonstrate the capability of NIRSPEC in studying hyper-volatiles in relatively faint comets at larger R.
  • C/2007 N3 (Lulin), LPC measured in 2009 with NIRSPEC, are coming to fruition in a paper led by scientific collaborator Erika Gibb. Co-I DiSanti was primary in analysis of echelle orders targeting CO (Fig. 4A) and H2CO (Fig. 4B).
  • C/2007 W1 (Boattini), LPC measured in 2008 with CRIRES and NIRSPEC. The NIRSPEC results are recently published (Villanueva et al. 2011a), and these suggest at least two phases of ice, one polar and one apolar. The CRIRES results were obtained over a series of R-values and a paper (led by Co-I DiSanti) is in preparation.

Fluorescence Modeling

To interpret our spectroscopic observations of comets we rely heavily on accurate models of predicted line-by-line intensities. The current progress period has featured significant advances in this capacity, and these feature both quantum mechanical and empirical approaches. Rigorous quantum mechanical models for C2H6 (ν7 band), H2O (multiple bands), and CH3OH (ν3 band) have been led by scientific collaborator Geronimo Villanueva.

Co-I DiSanti has developed an empirically-based model for the ν2 band of CH3OH centered near 2999 cm-1 (3.33 µm), incorporating approximately 100 of the most prominent lines based on laboratory measurements and assignments. Empirical g-factors were established using NIRSPEC spectra of 8P/Tuttle (Figure 5, top; see also Figs. 1c and 1d in Bonev et al. 2008 ApJ 680:L61-L64). A high abundance ratio CH3OH/C2H6 (approaching 10) was reported previously from observations of 8P/Tuttle with NIRSPEC (Bonev et al. 2008) and CRIRES (Bohnhardt et al. 2008 ApJ 683:L100-L104). Line assignments and rest frequencies for these lines were based on laboratory jet-cooled spectra of CH3OH near 20 K (Xu et al. 1997, J. Mol. Sp. 185, 158-172), and lower (ground) state energies were taken from Mekhtiev et al. 1999 (J. Mol. Sp. 194, 171-178). These empirical g-factors were then applied to the short-period (Jupiter Family) comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner (Figure 5, middle).

Figure 5A.NIRSPEC spectra of the Halley family comet 8P/Tuttle and Jupiter family comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. Empirical g-factors for lines in the ν2 band of CH3OH were obtained from the 8P lines based on the production rate (Q) measured from the ν3-band Q-branch intensity (lower left). Application to 15 spectral intervals (all except number 5, which is blended with OH prompt emission) leads to a Q for CH3OH in 21P that is consistent with that found from the ν3 Q-branch.

Figure 5B.NIRSPEC spectra of the Halley family comet 8P/Tuttle and Jupiter family comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. Empirical g-factors for lines in the ν2 band of CH3OH were obtained from the 8P lines based on the production rate (Q) measured from the ν3-band Q-branch intensity (lower left). Application to 15 spectral intervals (all except number 5, which is blended with OH prompt emission) leads to a Q for CH3OH in 21P that is consistent with that found from the ν3 Q-branch.

Objectives of Research:

1. Compare modeled and observed H2CO and CH3OH line intensities to accurately measure its abundance in comets, as well as to reveal potential discrepancies between model and data. This involves utilizing comets as test beds for fluorescence models, both quantum mechanical (for both H2CO and CH3OH) and empirical (for CH3OH).
2. Measure relative abundances of CO, H2CO, and CH3OH in observed comets, for comparison with the overall volatile chemistry.
3. From these measured abundances, extend the measurement of CO conversion (see Figure 1) to additional comets, in an attempt to establish the conditions (e.g., H-atom density, temperature) to which the pre-cometary ices were exposed. This requires comparison with yields from irradiation experiments on cometary ice analogues as a function of temperature, and also with observational data on these ices in interstellar and proto-stellar sources. Application of up-to-date fluorescence models (particularly for CH3OH) will modify conversion efficiencies for the comets shown in Fig. 1, and are being applied to the additional comets in our database. Also, accounting for reduced pumping solar photon intensities is expected to increase production rates (by up to ~ 20 percent) for CO in comets at small heliocentric velocities.

E/PO activities:

Co-I DiSanti is the GCA contact for the research effort, within the Minority Institution Astrobiology Cooperative (MIAC), to systematically observe comets through emission-line filters at optical wavelengths using the 1.3-m telescope on Kitt Peak. Dr. Donald Walter (South Carolina State University) leads this effort. Molecules giving rise to the IR emissions are photo-dissociated in the coma, producing the “daughter” fragments (radicals) to be targeted by the MIAC filter imaging program. The intent is to provide early molecular detections of radicals (e.g., C2, CN, OH, NH2, etc.) to assist in evaluating newly discovered comets as Targets-of-Opportunity and to provide production rates and 2-D images for selected daughter volatiles, in support of our principal comet program. For example, simultaneous (or nearly simultaneous) measurements at optical and IR wavelengths can provide information regarding their parentage. GCA provided scientific/technical guidance for the cometary filter set along with funding for their acquisition.

Summer 2011: Co-I DiSanti began serving as mentor to graduate student Adam McKay (New Mexico State U), who was awarded a NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program fellowship. His thesis will use optical and infrared spectra of comets to constrain the relative contributions from H2O and other molecules (principally CO, CO2) to atomic oxygen, as observed through its forbidden lines at 5577 and 6300, 6364 A. Mr. McKay’s stipend is for 3 years at no cost to the NAI.

    Michael DiSanti Michael DiSanti
    Unspecified Role
    Objective 1.1
    Formation and evolution of habitable planets.

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts