Breakthrough as JWST detects water on main belt comet in solar system

An artists illustration shows ice vaporizing into a gas from Comet 238P/Read as its orbit approaches the sun.
An artist’s illustration shows ice vaporizing into a gas from Comet 238P/Read as its orbit approaches the sun.

Scouring through the data gathered by orbiting infrared observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), astronomers have struck water on a rare comet in our solar system, a breakthrough discovery that warrants further research to detect life — may be in its rudimentary stages — on the interplanetary body, CNN reported.

“The is comet located in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, whereas the discovery comes after 15 years of attempts by astronomers using different observation methods,” CNN’s Ashley Strickland reported.

According to a study published Monday in the journal Nature, the discovery of water vapour around Comet Read meant that water ice can be preserved in a warmer part of the solar system.

Researchers said: “Comets typically exist in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, icy regions beyond the orbit of Neptune that can preserve some of the frozen materials left over from the formation of the solar system”.

“A rare subclass of comets called main belt comets are objects in the asteroid belt with circular orbits around the sun that periodically exhibit comet like behavior, such as shedding material that creates a fuzzy appearance and a trailing tail,” CNN report said.

It is also believed that comets and several asteroids loaded with water may have crashed on Earth during the early days of its formation. This is how oceans may have sprung up all over the planet, giving rise to life in the primordial soup.

According to the report, main-belt comets were first co-discovered in 2006 by a study coauthor Henry Hsieh, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. Comet Read was one of the original comets that started the subcategory.

The exact data collected by Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph assisted astronomers to determine the signature of water vapour around Comet Read as soon as it came closer to the sun.

“Our water-soaked world, teeming with life and unique in the universe as far as we know, is something of a mystery — we’re not sure how all this water got here,” said study coauthor Stefanie Milam, Webb deputy project scientist for planetary science at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“Understanding the history of water distribution in the solar system will help us to understand other planetary systems, and if they could be on their way to hosting an Earth-like planet.”

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