, Volume 138, Issue 1-4, pp 301-316
Date: 31 Jan 2008

The Contributions of Comets to Planets, Atmospheres, and Life: Insights from Cassini-Huygens, Galileo, Giotto, and Inner Planet Missions

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Abstract

Comets belong to a group of small bodies generally known as icy planetesimals. Today the most primitive icy planetesimals are the Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) occupying a roughly planar domain beyond Neptune. KBOs may be scattered inward, allowing them to collide with planets. Others may move outward, some all the way into the Oort cloud. This is a spherical distribution of comet nuclei at a mean distance of ∼50,000 AU. These nuclei are occasionally perturbed into orbits that intersect the paths of the planets, again allowing collisions. The composition of the atmosphere of Jupiter—and thus possibly all outer planets—shows the effects of massive early contributions from extremely primitive icy bodies that must have been close relatives of the KBOs. Titan may itself have a composition similar to that of Oort cloud comets. The origin and early evolution of its atmosphere invites comparison with that of the early Earth. Impacts of comets must have brought water and other volatile compounds to the Earth and the other inner planets, contributing to the reservoir of key ingredients for the origin of life. The magnitude of these contributions remains unknown but should be accessible to measurements by instruments on spacecraft.