Large Excess of Heavy Nitrogen in Both Hydrogen Cyanide and Cyanogen from Comet 17P/Holmes
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From millimeter and optical observations of the Jupiter-family comet 17P/Holmes performed soon after its huge outburst of 2007 October 24, we derive N-14/N-15 = 139 +/- 26 in HCN and N-14/N-15 = 165 +/- 40 in CN, establishing that HCN has the same nonterrestrial isotopic composition as CN. The same conclusion is obtained for the long-period comet C/1995 O1 (Hale-Bopp) after a reanalysis of previously published measurements. These results are compatible with HCN being the prime parent of CN in cometary atmospheres. The N-15 excess relative to the Earth's atmospheric value indicates that N-bearing volatiles in the solar nebula underwent important N isotopic fractionation at some stage of solar system Formation. HCN molecules never isotopically equilibrated with the main nitrogen reservoir in the solar nebula before being incorporated in Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt comets. The C-12/C-13 ratios in HCN and CN are measured to be consistent with the terrestrial value.