In 2016 a comet flew past the Earth known as Comet Catalina. The comet was briefly visible to astronomers on Earth before it flew past the sun and disappeared out of the solar system. While Catalina was visible, multiple observatories on Earth captured data and images to study.
One of the observatories that imaged Catalina was the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. That particular observatory is unique in that it’s a telescope on an airplane. SOFIA was able to identify a familiar element when investigating the comet’s tail in the form of carbon. NASA researchers now believe that comets like Catalina could have been an essential source of carbon on Rocky planets like Earth and Mars during the early formation of the solar system.
Researchers say carbon is key to learning the origins of life. Scientists aren’t sure if Earth could have attracted enough carbon on its own during its early formation. They believe carbon-rich comets could have been a vital source delivering the essential element that eventually led to life as we know it on Earth. Catalina originated from the Oort Cloud, and it and other comets of its type have extremely long orbits.
Their long orbits mean that they arrive where astronomers can view them relatively unaltered from their origins, making them essentially frozen in time. This type of comet provides an opportunity for scientists to learn about the early solar system where the comets originated. Carbon is a key ingredient for life on Earth. Earth and other terrestrial planets in the inner solar system were so hot during formation that researchers believe elements like carbon were lost or depleted.
Researchers think that a slight change in the orbit of Jupiter allowed small and early precursors of comets to mix carbon from the outer areas of the solar system to the inner area. That carbon was then incorporated into planets like Earth and Mars. The carbon-rich composition of Catalina helps scientists to explain how planets forming in the regions of the solar system with little carbon evolved into planets with an abundance of the element.