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The discovery of phosphorus and fluorine collected from a comet suggest all important elements needed for life may have been arrived on Earth by comets. Researchers from Finland’s University of Turku found phosphorus and fluorine in solid dust particles obtained from the inner core of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

The dust particles from the comet, which takes approximately 6.5 years to orbit the Sun, were collected with the Cometary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser (COSIMA).

We have shown that apatite minerals are not the source of phosphorus, which implies that the discovered phosphorus occurs in some more reduced and possibly more soluble form

Dr Harry Lehto

This cutting-edge instrument was working aboard the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft while tracking the comet from only a few miles away, between September 2014 and September 2016.

COSIMA instrument then proceeded to collect the dust particles directly, a process involving remotely-photographing three 1com-wide plates.

Phosphorus is considered vital as it is used in the creation of DNA, cell membranes, and is required by all living organisms to produce energy.

However, despite its importance, phosphorus is a relatively rare compound on Earth and it is usually found locked up in rocks as the mineral apatite.

But this is not is not the first time phosphorus has been found in a comet.

The first detection of this crucial element was conducted by US-based space agency NASA’s Vega 1 mission as it hurtled past comet 1P/Halley in 1986.

Although an important find in its own right, gaseous phosphorus is unlikely to have been present as a major species in our planet’s early atmosphere.

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Dr Harry Lehto from the University of Turku’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, said: ”We have shown that apatite minerals are not the source of phosphorus, which implies that the discovered phosphorus occurs in some more reduced and possibly more soluble form.”

This latest research now marks the first time such life-vital Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus and Sulphur (CHNOPS) elements have been discovered in solid cometary matter.

CHNOPS was reported in other studies by the COSIMA team from other organic molecules.

And the new discovery of chemical element phosphorus is the final one of the CHNOPS-elements.

This is thought to indicate cometary delivery as an increasingly-realistic origin of these elements brought to the nascent Earth.

Fluorine was also detected with secondary ions found in the cometary residue.

The first discovery of CF gas was from interstellar dust in last year.

Fluorine is an ion now discovered on the comet and its characteristics in such a cometary environment have yet to be fully understood.

The team wrote in their research paper just published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: “This result completes the detection of life-necessary CHNOPS-elements in solid cometary matter, indicating cometary delivery as a potential source of these elements to the young Earth.

“It is possible to seed the required elements with solid cometary matter, that is rich in volatiles.

“Although, more importantly, the compounds must be reactive and soluble, no matter how they are delivered.”

The researchers add further cometary sample-return missions could help confirm the presence of all compounds and how soluble the matter is.

Dr Lehto said: “This would also allow for a comprehensive analysis of the relative amounts of these CHNOPS-elements.”

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