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Proceedings Paper

Comets, asteroids, meteorites, and the origin of the Biosphere
Author(s): Richard B. Hoover
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Paper Abstract

During the past few decades, the delivery of water, organics, and prebiotic chemicals to the Biosphere of Earth during the Hadean (4.5-3.8 Ga) period of heavy bombardment by comets and asteroids has become more widely accepted. Comets are still largely regarded as frigid, pristine bodies of protosolar nebula material that are devoid of liquid water and therefore unsuitable for life. Complex organic compounds have been observed in comets and on the water-rich asteroid 1998 KY26 and near IR observations have indicated the presence of crystalline water ice and ammonia hydrate on the large Kuiper Belt object (50000) Quaoar that has resurfacing suggesting cryovolcanic outgassing. Spacecraft observations of the chemical compositions and characteristics of the nuclei of several comets (Halley, Borrelly, Wild 2, and Tempel 1) have shown that comets contain complex organic chemicals; that water is the predominant volatile; and that extremely high temperatures (~350-400 K) can be reached on the surface of the very black (albedo~0.03) nuclei of comets when they approach the Sun. Impact craters and pinnacles observed on comet Wild 2 suggest a thick crust. Episodic outbursts and jets from the nuclei of several comets indicate that localized regimes of liquid water and water vapor can periodically exist beneath the comet crust. The Deep Impact mission found the temperature of the nucleus of comet Tempel 1 at 1.5 AU varied from a minimum of 280 ±8 K the 330K (57 °C) on the sunlit side. In this paper it is argued that that pools and films of liquid water exist (within a wide range of temperatures) in cavities and voids just beneath the hot, black crust. The possibility of liquid water existing over a wide range of temperatures significantly enhances the possibility that comets might contain niches suitable for the growth of microbial communities and ecosystems. These regimes would be ideal for the growth of psychrophilic, mesophilic, and thermophilic photoautotrophs and chemolithotrophs such as the motile filamentous cyanobacteria (e.g., Calothrix, Oscillatoria, Phormidium, and Spirulina) that grow in geothermal springs and geysers of Earth at temperatures ranging from 320K to 345K and are also found growing in cold polar desert soils. The mineralized remains of morphotypes of all of these cyanobacteria have also been found in the Orgueil CI1 and the Murchison CN2 carbonaceous meteorites that may derive from cometary parent bodies. Observational results that support the hypothesis that liquid water can in active regions just beneath the surface of comets and that comets, carbonaceous meteorites, and asteroids may have played a significant role in the origin and evolution of the Biosphere and in the distribution of microbial life throughout the Solar System.s

Paper Details

Date Published: 14 September 2006
PDF: 12 pages
Proc. SPIE 6309, Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology IX, 63090J (14 September 2006); doi: 10.1117/12.690437
Show Author Affiliations
Richard B. Hoover, NASA Marshall Space Flight Ctr. (United States)


Published in SPIE Proceedings Vol. 6309:
Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology IX
Richard B. Hoover; Gilbert V. Levin; Alexei Y. Rozanov, Editor(s)

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