From the Interstellar Medium to Comets: The Case of Hydroxylated Silicates in 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

Report from ISSI Team #397 Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Surface Composition as a Playground for Radiative Transfer Modeling and Laboratory Measurements” led by M. Ciarniello

Recent investigations of the surface composition of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, by means of observations provided by the VIRTIS imaging spectrometer onboard the Rosetta mission, revealed the presence of aliphatic organics and ammonium salts, which characterize the ubiquitous 3.2 µm absorption band in the comet’s infrared spectrum. (See ISSI Team Report from April 9, 2020)

Here we report of a further laboratory investigation, which indicates that hydroxylated magnesium-rich amorphous silicates have spectral properties compatible with the infrared absorption observed on the comet 67P/Churumov-Gerasimenko. They can be an additional constituent of the comet’s surface. Hydroxylated amorphous silicates are formed upon interaction of hydrogen atoms with amorphous silicates. Such process can take place in the interstellar medium (ISM), and the presence of hydroxylated silicates on a cometary nucleus would represent an evolutionary linkbetween the ISM and the primitive objects in the Solar System. The link is consistent with the evolution of aliphatic organics, which also originate in the ISM.

The investigation took advantage, among other authors, of the collaboration of the ISSI Team “Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Surface Composition as a Playground for Radiative Transfer Modeling and Laboratory Measurements” led by M. Ciarniello and has been published in the paper

Hydroxylated Mg-rich Amorphous Silicates: A New Component of the 3.2 μm Absorption Band of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko by V. Mennella et al., 2020, The Astrophysical Journal Letters, Volume 897, Number 2, DOI:

ISSI Tuesday Tea(m) Time 1551

Report by Joachim Wambsganss, ISSI Director

Following the interruption of the usual activities at ISSI in Bern due to the Corona crisis, the ISSI directorate discussed other/new/additional ways to promote and enable international space science. We came up with three new initiatives, the first of which started on July 14, 2020: ‘ISSI Tuesday Tea(m) Time 1551’ and will be presented here.

The idea behind it is as follows: Due to national and international travel restrictions, regular full physical meetings at ISSI Bern are presently difficult. This is of particular concern to the ISSI International Teams. International Teams consist of 8 to 15 scientists and typically meet in Bern at the ISSI premises two or three times within roughly two years. At any given time, about 50 International Teams are “active”. Since mid-March, no meeting of an International Team has taken place at ISSI although the first physical meetings will likely resume in September.  

To provide support to International Teams, the ISSI directorate came up with the suggestion to meet “virtually” in form of video conferences. In order to structure this and to give ISSI scientists a chance to participate, we fixed a weekly slot, Tuesdays at 15:51 o’clock Bern time (i.e. CEST or CET, respectively). So ideally, every Tuesday a different team shall meet within the next so many months. The slightly odd-looking time-of-day was chosen because the numerals 1551 look very similar to the letters ISSI and hence have a visual connection and can be easily remembered as well. Since on one hand, this afternoon time is when many cultures celebrate a cup of tea, on the other hand we want each ISSI Team to use this opportunity, we call this new activity: 

ISSI Tuesday Tea(m) Time 1551

(or in short ISSI TTT 1551). Most of the International Teams responded positively, some embraced this new opportunity of a soon-to-be-held team meeting enthusiastically.

The first actual “ISSI TTT 1551”-event took place on Tuesday this week, July 14, 2020. The ISSI International Team An Exploration of the Valley Region in the Low altitude Ionosphere: Response to Forcing from Below and Above and Relevance to Space Weather lead by Jorge Chau (Leibniz Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Rostock, Germany) met online via the ZOOM system, the session had been prepared by ISSI.

Screenshot of the first Tuesday Tea(m) Meeting with the J. Chau Team and ISSI Staff Members














This “ISSI TTT 1551”-premiere worked very well. After a few introductory words by ISSI representatives, the team chair Koki Chau presented a draft agenda for the meeting. First some administrative issues were discussed, e.g. whether the next envisioned physical meeting team meeting at ISSI Bern – foreseen for end of September – could or should be held, maybe combined as a hybrid meeting with remote participation possible. Then the team discussed how to proceed with another new ISSI activity, namely an ISSI@25 video, meant to celebrate 25 years of ISSI with a 25 second video per International Team (this will be reported about in the near future with a separate spotlight). Following a brief status of activities, three short science talks (10 min each) were presented by team members followed by a Q&A period. A general discussion concluded the meeting.

This first ISSI TTT 1551 was an excellent realization of our vision at ISSI of how such a meeting should work. Five ISSI staff members participated, at least for part of the time. They enjoyed the opportunity to meet the team and get an excellent impression on what their science is all about as well as of the enthusiasm of the team members. This team was an excellent pioneer and did extremely well from our ISSI perspective. We certainly hope that the team enjoyed their Tea Time as well. We look forward to many more interesting and exciting ISSI TTT 1551 events with other active ISSI International Teams in the coming months!

3He-rich Solar Energetic Particles Observations at Parker Solar Probe

Report from ISSI Team #425 Origins of 3He-Rich Solar Energetic Particles led by R. Bucik and J.F. Drake 

Left: Mass histogram for 3He-rich SEP event on 2019 April 20 shows small but clear 3He peak. Right: Jet observations at the west limb from the SDO/AIA. Adapted from Wiedenbeck et al. (2020).

3He-rich solar energetic particles (SEPs) are one of the most peculiar and least explored particle populations in the heliosphere with a tremendously enhanced abundance of the 3He nuclide and ultra-heavy elements (e.g., Pb) by a factor up to 104 above the solar corona or solar wind. One reason for the current lack of understanding of 3He-rich SEPs is the small size of these events. Recently launched Parker Solar Probe (PSP) is able to approach the solar sources of 3He rich SEPs at distances (~0.05 au; 1 au ~ 1.5⨉108 km) that have never been reached before. On 2019 April 20-21, the IS⊙IS energetic particle suite on PSP made its first observations of 3He-rich SEPs. 3He-rich SEPs were observed at energies near 1 MeV/nuc in association with energetic protons, heavy ions, and electrons. At the time of 3He-rich SEP observations, the spacecraft was near 0.46 au. The event was also detected by ULEIS and EPAM on Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft, located near Earth, at 0.99 au from the Sun. The average intensity at ~ 1 MeV/nuc was a factor ~4 greater at PSP than at ACE, which might be attributable to a 1/r2 dependence of the fluence, where r is a distance from the Sun. At that time, PSP and ACE were both magnetically connected to a location near the west limb of the Sun. Remote sensing measurements showed the presence of a type III radio burst and also a helical unwinding jet from this region of the Sun. This activity, which is commonly associated with 3He-rich SEP acceleration on the Sun, originated from the active region number AR 12738. We also searched for smaller 3He-rich SEP events that are not observable near the Earth but might have been detectable closer to the Sun because of the expected strong radial dependence of the intensities of SEP events impulsively released from localized sources. Although no such events were detected during the first two orbits of PSP, this search will be continuing as PSP moves progressively closer to the Sun, and as solar activity increases. These observations should enable IS⊙IS to make significant progress in understanding small 3He-rich SEP events.


Animation of the Jet observations at the west limb from the SDO/AIA. Adapted from Wiedenbeck et al. (2020).



Wiedenbeck M.E., Bucik R., Mason G.M., Ho G.C., Leske R.A. et al., 3He-rich Solar Energetic Particle Observations at Parker Solar Probe and Near Earth, Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser. 246, 42, 2020.

Saturn’s Huge Moon Titan Drifting Away Faster Than Previously Thought

Report from ISSI Team #411 The ENCELADE Team: Constraining the Dynamical Timescale and Internal Processes of the Saturn and Jupiter Systems from Astrometry led by V. Lainey

Did you know that the Earth’s moon distance is increasing at about 3.8 cm/year because of the tides the Moon raises on our own planet? Thanks to Newton and his law of gravity, entailed the proper explanation of tides: the side of the Earth that is closer to the Moon is more attracted than its opposite side. As a consequence, the Earth takes an elongated shape like a football. Distance increase comes then as a consequence of friction inside the oceans essentially. Both shape distortion and orbital variation rate are expected to get significantly lower with distance, since tides are a consequence of gravitation.

A giant of a moon appears before a giant of a planet undergoing seasonal changes in this natural color view of Titan and Saturn from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Since tidal theory is universal, researchers have applied it over the last 50 years to predict the orbital evolution of many moons. From the evolution of the four big Galilean satellites of Jupiter to the small moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, the same theory was used underneath. Recently and in the context of the Cassini mission, the ISSI ENCELADE Team led by Valery Lainey in collaboration with a team from the University of Bologna tried to quantify from observations the orbital expansion of Titan, the largest Saturnian moon, under Saturn’s tides. Surprisingly, they found that Titan is escaping Saturn’s gravity at a large pace of 11 cm/year, more than a hundred times faster than expected from theoretical models. Even more surprising, such expansion rate is larger than for moons closer to Saturn, in complete contradiction with classical tidal theory! But the study demonstrates a perfect agreement with the prediction of a new tidal mechanism, suggested only four years ago by Jim Fuller (Caltech) and co-authors. Such so-called “tidal lock mechanism” suggests that Titan may have formed way closer to Saturn, than commonly believed. This result brings an important new piece of the puzzle for the highly debated question of the age of the Saturnian system.

Like the classical tidal theory for terrestrial objects, tidal lock mechanism is a universal physical mechanism for giant planets. In principle, it could be at play in way other systems were giant planets are involved, starting with the Jupiter system itself.

More Information can be found here: News Release June 8, 2020, NASA JPL Caltech >>

Lainey, V., Casajus, L.G., Fuller, J. et al. Resonance locking in giant planets indicated by the rapid orbital expansion of Titan, Nature Astronomy, 2020.

Aliphatic Organics and Ammonium Salts on the Surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Report from ISSI Team #397 Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Surface Composition as a Playground for Radiative Transfer Modeling and Laboratory Measurements” led by M. Ciarniello

A primary goal of ESA’s Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (hereafter 67P) was the characterization of the nucleus material.

The Visible Infrared and Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS) revealed a mostly spectrally uniform nucleus surface, dominated by a low-albedo material exhibiting a broad infrared absorption centered at 3.2 µm. The surface composition of the comet was found compatible with a mixture of organics, minerals and minor amounts of ices, although the identification of the compounds responsible for the 3.2-µm feature has remained challenging so far.

Ammonium salts found on Rosetta’s comet (Image Credit: O. Poch, IPAG, UGA/CNES/CNRS (left); ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0 (right))


Here we report the results of a refined analysis of measurements acquired by the instrument’s infrared mapping channel (VIRTIS-M-IR).

In particular, spectral signatures of aliphatic organics within the broad absorption band were identified for the first time on a cometary nucleus. In addition, further investigations by means of laboratory experiments allowed the identification of ammonium salts as carriers of the 3.2-µm absorption feature. These salts may be a major reservoir of nitrogen in comets.

These studies highlight similarities between the infrared spectrum of 67P with those of other minor bodies in the Solar System, including some outer belt asteroids and Jupiter Trojans. As a consequence, these bodies may host organic materials and/or ammoniated salts, blurring the distinction between comets and other primitive objects. Aliphatic features in 67P appear similar to the typical aliphatic features in the interstellar medium (ISM) and are also compatible with those of the chondritic insoluble organic matter (IOM). This suggests that the organic material may be inherited from the ISM by comets and other minor bodies that delivered it to the inner Solar System. Similarly, ammoniated salts, potentially formed in the icy mantle of dust grains in the pre-stellar or protoplanetary phases, could have provided nitrogen to the inner planets. Such processes could have favored the emergence of a prebiotic chemistry.

These investigations took advantage, among other authors, of the collaboration of the ISSI Team “Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Surface Composition as a Playground for Radiative Transfer Modeling and Laboratory Measurements” led by M. Ciarniello and have been published in two separate papers:

“Infrared detection of aliphatic organics on a cometary nucleus” by A. Raponi et al., 2020, Nature Astronomy; DOI:

“Ammonium salts are a reservoir of nitrogen on a cometary nucleus and possibly on some asteroids” by O. Poch et al., 2020,  Science 367, DOI: