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Discovery About Rare Nitrogen Molecules Offers Clues to Makeup of Other Life-Supporting Planets

7 Dec 2017, 18:46 UTC
Discovery About Rare Nitrogen Molecules Offers Clues to Makeup of Other Life-Supporting Planets
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A team of scientists using a state-of-the-art UCLA instrument reports the discovery of a planetary-scale “tug-of-war” of life, deep Earth and the upper atmosphere that is expressed in atmospheric nitrogen.The Earth’s atmosphere differs from the atmospheres of most other rocky planets and moons in our solar system in that it is rich in nitrogen gas, or N2; the Earth’s atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen gas. Titan, the largest of Saturn’s more than 60 moons, is the other body in our solar system with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere that resembles ours.Compared with other key elements of life — such as oxygen, hydrogen and carbon — molecular nitrogen is very stable. Two nitrogen atoms combine to form N2 molecules that stay in the atmosphere for millions of years.The majority of nitrogen has an atomic mass of 14. Less than one percent of nitrogen has an extra neutron. While this heavy isotope, nitrogen-15, is rare, N2 molecules that contain two nitrogen-15s — which chemists call 15N15N — are the rarest of all N2 molecules.The team of scientists measured the amount of 15N15N in air and discovered that this rare form of nitrogen gas is far more abundant than scientists had expected. The Earth’s atmosphere ...

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