Skip to main content

Water on Earth could have an interstellar origin, according to comet data

Illustration of a comet, ice grains and Earth’s oceans. SOFIA found clues in Comet Wirtanen’s ice grains that suggest water in comets and Earth’s oceans may share a common origin. NASA/SOFIA/L. Cook/L. Proudfit

Scientists have uncovered clues to the source of Earth’s bountiful water. New research shows that water carried in comets may originate from the same source as water in the Earth’s oceans, suggesting that water could have been carried to our planet by comets millions of years ago.

Comets are small, icy bodies which melt and vaporize when they pass the Sun. This vaporization is what produces their famous tails. NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observed a comet called Comet Wirtanen during its close approach to Earth in December 2018, and noted that it contained water similar to that found in our oceans.

The scientists looked at the ratio of water to heavy water (water with an extra neutron inside one of the hydrogen atoms) in both sources and found the comet’s water had the same ratio as ocean water.

But the members of the team were surprised when it compared the SOFIA data to older studies of comets, as they discovered that the amount of heavy water was not related to the origin of the comet as they had expected. Rather, the amount of heavy water was affected by whether water was mostly released from the halo of matter around the comet or from its surface.

“This is the first time we could relate the heavy-to-regular water ratio of all comets to a single factor,” Dominique Bockelée-Morvan, scientist at the Paris Observatory and the French National Center for Scientific Research and second author of the paper, said in a statement. “We may need to rethink how we study comets because water released from the ice grains appears to be a better indicator of the overall water ratio than the water released from surface ice.”

The data were collected by SOFIA, NASA’s laboratory aboard an airplane, which can fly above most of the water in Earth’s atmosphere. This water interferes with distant signals, so moving above it allows scientists to collect more accurate data and to see more distant cosmic events. These findings give weight to the idea that water arrived on Earth from elsewhere, but studies on more comets are required to confirm that.

“Water was crucial for the development of life as we know it,” Darek Lis, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of the study, said in the statement. “We not only want to understand how Earth’s water was delivered, but also if this process could work in other planetary systems.”

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
The best portable power stations
EcoFlow DELTA 2 on table at campsite for quick charging.

Affordable and efficient portable power is a necessity these days, keeping our electronic devices operational while on the go. But there are literally dozens of options to choose from, making it abundantly difficult to decide which mobile charging solution is best for you. We've sorted through countless portable power options and came up with six of the best portable power stations to keep your smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other gadgets functioning while living off the grid.
The best overall: Jackery Explorer 1000

Jackery has been a mainstay in the portable power market for several years, and today, the company continues to set the standard. With three AC outlets, two USB-A, and two USB-C plugs, you'll have plenty of options for keeping your gadgets charged.

Read more
CES 2023: HD Hyundai’s Avikus is an A.I. for autonomous boat and marine navigation
Demonstration of NeuBoat level 2 autonomous navigation system at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show

This content was produced in partnership with HD Hyundai.
Autonomous vehicle navigation technology is certainly nothing new and has been in the works for the better part of a decade at this point. But one of the most common forms we see and hear about is the type used to control steering in road-based vehicles. That's not the only place where technology can make a huge difference. Autonomous driving systems can offer incredible benefits to boats and marine vehicles, too, which is precisely why HD Hyundai has unveiled its Avikus AI technology -- for marine and watercraft vehicles.

More recently, HD Hyundai participated in the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, to demo its NeuBoat level 2 autonomous navigation system for recreational boats. The name mashes together the words "neuron" and "boat" and is quite fitting since the Avikus' A.I. navigation tech is a core component of the solution, it will handle self-recognition, real-time decisions, and controls when on the water. Of course, there are a lot of things happening behind the scenes with HD Hyundai's autonomous navigation solution, which we'll dive into below -- HD Hyundai will also be introducing more about the tech at CES 2023.

Read more
This AI cloned my voice using just three minutes of audio
acapela group voice cloning ad

There's a scene in Mission Impossible 3 that you might recall. In it, our hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) tackles the movie's villain, holds him at gunpoint, and forces him to read a bizarre series of sentences aloud.

"The pleasure of Busby's company is what I most enjoy," he reluctantly reads. "He put a tack on Miss Yancy's chair, and she called him a horrible boy. At the end of the month, he was flinging two kittens across the width of the room ..."

Read more