The determination of ice composition with instruments on cometary landers

W. V. Boynton, L. C. D'Uston, D. T. Young, J. I. Lunine, J. H. Waite, S. H. Bailey, J. J. Berthelier, J. L. Bertaux, V. Borrel, M. F. Burke, B. A. Cohen, D. H. McComas, J. E. Nordholt, L. G. Evans, J. I. Trombka

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The determination of the composition of materials that make up comets is essential in trying to understand the origin of these primitive objects. The ices especially could be made in several different astrophysical settings including the solar nebula, protosatellite nebulae of the giant planets, and giant molecular clouds that predate the formation of the solar system. Each of these environments makes different ices with different composition. In order to understand the origin of comets, one needs to determine the composition of each of the ice phases. For example, it is of interest to know that comets contain carbon monoxide, CO, but it is much more important to know how much of it is a pure solid phase, is trapped in clathrate hydrates, or is adsorbed on amorphous water ice. In addition, knowledge of the isotopic composition of the constituents will help determine the process that formed the compounds. Finally, it is important to understand the bulk elemental composition of the nucleus. When these data are compared with solar abundances, they put strong constraints on the macro-scale processes that formed the comet. A differential scanning calorimeter (DSC) and an evolved-gas analyzer (EGA) will make the necessary association between molecular constituents and their host phases. This combination of instruments takes a small (tens of mg) sample of the comet and slowly heats it in a sealed oven. As the temperature is raised, the DSC precisely measures the heat required, and delivers the gases to the EGA. Changes in the heat required to raise the temperature at a controlled rate are used to identify phase transitions, e.g., crystallization of amorphous ice or melting of hexagonal ice, and the EGA correlates the gases released with the phase transition. The EGA consists of two mass spectrometers run in tandem. The first mass spectrometer is a magnetic-sector ion-momentum analyzer (MAG), and the second is an electrostatic time-of-flight analyzer (TOF). The TOF acts as a detector for the MAG and serves to resolve ambiguities between fragments of similar mass such as CO and N2. Because most of the compounds of interest for the volatile ices are simple, a gas chromatograph is not needed and thus more integration time is available to determine isotopic ratios. A gamma-ray spectrometer (GRS) will determine the elemental abundances of the bulk cometary material by determining the flux of gamma rays produced from the interaction of the cometary material with cosmic-ray produced neutrons. Because the gamma rays can penetrate a distance of several tens of centimeters, a large volume of material is analyzed. The measured composition is, therefore, much more likely to be representative of the bulk comet than a very small sample that might have lost some of its volatiles. Making these measurements on a lander offers substantial advantages over trying to address similar objectives from an orbiter. For example, an orbiter instrument can determine the presence and isotopic composition of CO in the cometary coma, but only a lander can determine the phase(s) in which the CO is located and separately determine the isotopic composition of each reservoir of CO. The bulk composition of the nucleus might be constrained from separate orbiter analyses of dust and gas in the coma, but the result will be very model dependent, as the ratio of gas to dust in the comet will vary and will not necessarily be equal to the bulk value.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)663-674
Number of pages12
JournalActa Astronautica
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 1997
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Aerospace Engineering


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