'Eau de comet' is a bit of a stinker

October 23, 2014
Rotten eggs, horse pee, alcohol and bitter almonds: this is the bouquet of odours you would smell if a comet in deep space could be brought back to Earth, European scientists said

Rotten eggs, horse pee, alcohol and bitter almonds: this is the bouquet of odours you would smell if a comet in deep space could be brought back to Earth, European scientists said on Thursday.

An instrument aboard the probe Rosetta has detected some intriguing chemical signatures from Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko since their rendezvous in in August, they said.

Molecules include ammonia, methane, , and formaldehyde.

"If you could smell the , you probably wish that you hadn't," the team said wryly in a blog posted on the European Space Agency (ESA) website.

The device, called Rosina-DFMS, is a mass spectrometer—it has been analysing the signature of gas given off by the "coma," the comet's head, as the distance closes with the Sun.

"The perfume of 67P/C-G is quite strong, with the odour of (hydrogen sulphide), horse stable (ammonia) and the pungent, suffocating odour of formaldehyde," said Kathrin Altwegg, Rosina's chief scientist.

"This is mixed with the faint, bitter, almond-like aroma of hydrogen cyanide.

"Add some whiff of alcohol (methanol) to this mixutre, paired with the vinegar-like aroma of sulphur dioxide and a hint of the sweet aromatic scent of carbon disulphide, and you arrive at the 'perfume' of our comet."

The detection of so many different molecules at this stage has been a surprise, ESA said.

The Rosina team believed only the most volatile molecules—carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide—would be released as the comet's icy surface started slowly to warm.

On a 6.5-year orbit, 67P/C-G is the target of an ambitious mission to shed light on the origins of comets, ancient travellers of the Solar System.

Rosetta caught up with it after a six-billion-kilometre (3.75-billion-mile) trek that required four flybys of Earth and Mars, using the planets' gravity as a slingshot to build up speed.

It is now in close orbit around the comet at a distance of around 400 million kilometres from the Sun. The scout will send down a robot lander, Philae, on November 12 to carry out on-the-spot scientific tests.

On August 13 next year, the comet and Rosetta will be 185 million kilometres from the Sun, their closest approach to our star.

Explore further: Image: Rosetta selfie 16 km from comet

Related Stories

Image: Rosetta selfie 16 km from comet

October 15, 2014

Using the CIVA camera on Rosetta's Philae lander, the spacecraft have snapped a 'selfie' at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from a distance of about 16 km from the surface of the comet. The image was taken on 7 October ...

Comet-chasing probe closes in on target

July 2, 2014

A comet-chasing spacecraft on a mission to land on a fizzing ball of ice and dust later this year has begun a crucial slow-down maneuver to avoid flying past its target.

Image: Rosetta's target up close

August 7, 2014

(Phys.org) —Close up detail focusing on a smooth region on the 'base' of the 'body' section of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The image was taken by Rosetta's Onboard Scientific Imaging System (OSIRIS) on August 6, 2014. ...

Image: Jet activity at the neck of the Rosetta comet

October 3, 2014

(Phys.org) —The four images that make up a new montage of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko were taken on September 26, 2014 by the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft. At the time, Rosetta was about 16 miles (26 kilometers) ...

Recommended for you

NASA telescope studies quirky comet 45P

November 22, 2017

When comet 45P zipped past Earth early in 2017, researchers observing from NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility, or IRTF, in Hawai'i gave the long-time trekker a thorough astronomical checkup. The results help fill in crucial ...

Uncovering the origins of galaxies' halos

November 21, 2017

Using the Subaru Telescope atop Maunakea, researchers have identified 11 dwarf galaxies and two star-containing halos in the outer region of a large spiral galaxy 25 million light-years away from Earth. The findings, published ...

Cassini image mosaic: A farewell to Saturn

November 21, 2017

In a fitting farewell to the planet that had been its home for over 13 years, the Cassini spacecraft took one last, lingering look at Saturn and its splendid rings during the final leg of its journey and snapped a series ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RichManJoe
5 / 5 (1) Oct 23, 2014
"Rotten eggs, horse pee, alcohol and bitter almonds" -- OK, primary school science teachers, here is a good article to tell those little tykes about when teaching about space and the stars - it should truly enGROSS them.
Milou
1 / 5 (2) Oct 23, 2014
I wish they had a microphone to hear what the area sounds like. Especially when the gases flow out.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.