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Solar system mystery finally solved, thanks to salty space rock

A space puzzle that has long left scientists scratching their heads has finally been solved thanks to the salty surface of a comet and to some diligent researchers.

Investigations have long shown that comets appear to have 10 times less nitrogen than they ought to, based on scientific understanding of how they form. This has confounded boffins and sparked a search for the missing element.

The secret was given up by a comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko which was orbited by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft. The probe captured a trove of pictures from the comet and an analysis found that something was absorbing some of the light bouncing off its surface.

RT

A group of researchers from the University of Grenoble in France and other European institutions created fake comets in a lab and simulated a variety of compositions to try and figure out what compounds were sucking up the light.

In doing so they stumbled across this ‘missing’ nitrogen that had baffled researchers elsewhere. It turns out that the absorption effect was caused by ammonium salts along the surface of the comet. 

As well as solving the nitrogen question, the breakthrough could help explain how nitrogen may have been carried to Earth by comets and how the gas giants in our solar system formed.

The research was published in the journal Science on Friday.

Also on rt.com SETI scans of interstellar comet Borisov found NO SIGNS of alien tech, but the search goes on

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