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MPE News of July 16, 2010

Cometary Impact on Neptune

Measurements performed by the space observatory Herschel point to a collision about two centuries ago

Two centuries ago a comet may have hit Neptune, the outer-most planet in our solar system.
Credit: NASA

A comet may have hit the planet Neptune about two centuries ago. This is indicated by the distribution of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere of the gas giant that researchers - among them scientists from the French observatory LESIA in Paris, from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Katlenburg-Lindau (Germany) and from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching (Germany) - have now studied. The scientists analyzed data taken by the research satellite Herschel that has been orbiting the Sun at a distance of approximately 1.5 million kilometres since May 2009. (Astronomy & Astrophysics, published online on July 16th, 2010)

In February 2010 scientists from MPS discovered strong evidence for a cometary impact on Saturn about 230 years ago (see Astronomy and Astrophysics, Volume 510, February 2010). New measurements performed now by the instrument PACS (Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer) on board the Herschel space observatory indicate that Neptune experienced a similar event. For the first time, PACS allows researchers to analyze the long-wave infrared radiation of Neptune.

The atmosphere of the outer-most planet of our solar system mainly consists of hydrogen and helium with traces of water, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Now, the scientists detected an unusual distribution of carbon monoxide: In the upper layer of the atmosphere, the so-called stratosphere, they found a higher concentration than in the layer beneath, the troposphere. The only explanation for these results is a cometary impact. Such a collision forces the comet to fall apart while the carbon monoxide trapped in the comet's ice is released and over the years distributed throughout the stratosphere.

The instrument PACS was developed at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. It analyzes the long-wave infrared radiation, also known as heat radiation that the cold bodies in space such as Neptune emit. The research satellite Herschel carries the largest telescope ever to operate in space.

Original paper:
E. Lellouch et al.:
First results of Herschel /PACS observations of Neptune,
Astronomy & Astrophysics, Vol. 518, L152 (2010),
DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/201014600
on July 16th, 2010 available under   externer Verweis http://www.aanda.org/articles/aa/abs/2010/10/contents/contents.html
external link preprint in astro-ph

T. Cavaliť et. al.:
A cometary origin for CO in the stratosphere of Saturn?,
external link Astronomy & Astrophysics, Vol. 510, February 2010,
DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/200912909
Other press releases:
Link to the full Press Release by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS):

exteral link MPS press release

internal link Dr. Hannelore Hämmerle
Press Officer
Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik
phone: +49 89 30000-3980
email: hanneh@mpe.mpg.de
  internal link Helmut Feuchtgruber
Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik, Garching
phone: +49 89 30000-3290
email: fgb@mpe.mpg.de
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