Letter

Nature 448, 172-175 (12 July 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature05908; Received 7 March 2007; Accepted 2 May 2007

Compositional homogeneity in the fragmented comet 73P/Schwassmann–Wachmann 3

N. Dello Russo1, R. J. Vervack1, H. A. Weaver1, N. Biver2, D. Bockelée-Morvan2, J. Crovisier2 & C. M. Lisse1

  1. Space Department, The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, 11100 Johns Hopkins Road, Laurel, Maryland 20723-6099, USA
  2. Observatoire de Meudon–Paris, LESIA, 5 Place Jules Janssen, Meudon 92190, France

Correspondence to: N. Dello Russo1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to N.D.R. (Email: neil.dello.russo@jhuapl.edu).

The remarkable compositional diversity of volatile ices within comets1, 2, 3 can plausibly be attributed to several factors, including differences in the chemical, thermal and radiation environments in comet-forming regions, chemical evolution during their long storage in reservoirs far from the Sun4, and thermal processing by the Sun after removal from these reservoirs. To determine the relevance of these factors, measurements of the chemistry as a function of depth in cometary nuclei are critical. Fragmenting comets expose formerly buried material, but observational constraints have in the past limited the ability to assess the importance of formative conditions and the effects of evolutionary processes on measured composition5, 6, 7, 8. Here we report the chemical composition of two distinct fragments of 73P/Schwassmann–Wachmann 3. The fragments are remarkably similar in composition, in marked contrast to the chemical diversity within the overall comet population and contrary to the expectation that short-period comets should show strong compositional variation with depth in the nucleus owing to evolutionary processing from numerous close passages to the Sun. Comet 73P/Schwassmann–Wachmann 3 is also depleted in the most volatile ices compared to other comets, suggesting that the depleted carbon-chain chemistry seen in some comets from the Kuiper belt reservoir is primordial and not evolutionary1.

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