This drawing represents a comet bringing atmospheric molecules and possibly the building blocks of life to the Earth's surface.
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JPL/NASA

Did Comets bring Life to Earth?

Believe it or not, a few scientists believe it is possible that life may have begun on comets. Out in their distant home, the Oort Cloud, comets are exposed to the kind of energy needed to form the building blocks of life.

There is no atmosphere to speak of on comets in the Oort cloud, but when they are disturbed from their homes and begin traveling toward the sun they develop a temporary atmosphere. Because comets close to the sun lose a portion of their surface, it is thought that comets may have brought some of life's elementary molecules to the inner solar system and deposited them on planets, where they could better survive. Every year the Earth passes through the Leonids and other areas of debris left in the wake of comets (Leonids are from the comet Temple 2).

More importantly however, comets have even hit a planet's surface, such as the case when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit and plunged into the planet Jupiter in 1995. Craterchains found on other moons show that comets have hit planets before.

Comets range in size from 10 km in diameter to 100 km in diameter, which implies a sizeable volume of material. Since comets are made mostly of water, the impact of a comet with the primordial Earth would have deposited a large amount of water for the atmosphere and ocean. Since comets are only loosely held together, like a snowball, it is not required for such an object to hit the surface of the Earth to disintegrate. It could burn up at high altitude and deposit its water into the atmosphere. One comet the size of Halley's comet would bring enough water to form a large lake. In recent years some evidence has surfaced that many small comets may be hitting the Earth all the time, bringing water and other molecules.

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Traveling Nitrogen is a fun group game appropriate for the classroom. Players follow nitrogen atoms through living and nonliving parts of the nitrogen cycle. For grades 5-9.

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