Two Polish researchers have discovered nickel vapours within the atmosphere of the icy interstellar comet 2I/Borisov, the prestigious international ‘Nature’ science and technology journal has reported.
The “unexpected” discovery by Piotr Guzik and Michał Drahus from the Astronomical Observatory at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, southern Poland, published in the journal Nature, could help shed more light on how the Solar System came into existence.
The Polish scientists’ observations of the icy interstellar comet 2I/Borisov were carried out at the end of January, 2020, and utilised data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT). At that time, the comet was observed some 300 million kilometres away from the Sun (about twice the distance between the Earth and the Sun).
Despite this great distance, the Poles found that 2I/Borisov’s cold atmosphere contains gaseous nickel. “At first we had a hard time believing that atomic nickel could really be present in 2I/Borisov that far from the Sun,” Piotr Guzik pointed out.
The discovery was surprising, since in solid form heavy metals such as nickel usually exist in the rocky interiors of comets, but in gaseous form these substances are more commonly associated with hot environments, such as the atmospheres of comets passing very close to the Sun.
The journal noted that studies of interstellar bodies in detail are fundamental to science because they carry invaluable information about the alien planetary systems they originate from. “All of a sudden we understood that gaseous nickel is present in cometary atmospheres in other corners of the galaxy,” stated Michał Drahus.
The Polish studies show that 2I/Borisov and Solar System comets have even more in common than previously thought.
“Now imagine that our Solar System’s comets have their true analogues in other planetary systems — how cool is that?” concluded Mr Drahus.