Isotope measurements of a comet by the Ptolemy instrument on Rosetta

Franchi, Ian; Morse, Andrew; Andrews, Dan; Sheridan, Simon; Barber, Simeon; Leese, Mark; Morgan, Geraint; Wright, Ian and Pillinger, Colin (2010). Isotope measurements of a comet by the Ptolemy instrument on Rosetta. In: 38th COSPAR Scientific Assembly, 18-15 Jul 2010, Bremen, Germany,.


Remote observations of comets (spacecraft fly-bys and telescopes) reveal a vast reservoir of volatile organic species, along with the water ice, other volatiles and silicate dust fractions that make up these very primitive bodies. Understanding the nature of cometary materials, in order to unravel their origin and history, is particularly challenging. Remote observation is only possible for the coma, the constituents of which are likely fractionated and modified compared to the primordial material within the comet. A number of opportunities exist for very detailed study of cometary material with ground-based laboratory instrumentation. How-ever, dissipation of energy during capture (e.g. NASA Stardust samples) or atmospheric entry (stratospheric interplanetary dust particles) has the potential to extensively modify, or even obliterate, detailed information about the nature and origin of the more volatile, biologically important organic species present. Collecting and returning pristine material from the surface of a comet remains very challenging and therefore direct study of the volatile portions can only readily be performed on the comet itself by remote instruments. The ESA Rosetta mission, that will make long-term measurements of a comet as it approaches the sun from 3.5 AU to 1.4 AU over a period of at least six months, includes the Philae lander as well as the orbiter spacecraft. Ptolemy, on board Philae, is a GC-MS instrument designed for the analysis of cometary volatiles, organic materials and silicates. The objectives of Ptolemy are to provide a complete description of the nature and distribution of light elements (H, C, N and O) present in the nucleus of the comet, as well as determining their stable isotopic compositions. Ptolemy also aims to provide ground-truth measurements of those volatiles that are subsequently detected further out from the nucleus in the coma. Samples from the surface and sub-surface, collected by the lander drilling system (SD2), are heated in an oven and can be injected into one of three gas chromatography columns (GC) for analysis by the mass spectrometer. Accurate isotopic analysis is achieved by chemical processing before and/or after the GC columns and by direct comparison with reference materials of known isotopic composition. Recent operations of the Ptolemy mass spectrometer during recent spacecraft checkouts have shown that the Ptolemy instrument is operational and should be capable of meeting its science aims.

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