Comets have been suggested as a possibly significant source of organic molecules to the early Earth. Hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is important in models of prebiotic chemistry, but may be difficult to form in the early terrestrial environment, while hydrogen isocyanide (HNC) is a `classical' tracer of interstellar ion-molecule chemistry. We have observed both HCN and HNC in 2 recent comets, bringing the number of comets with published measurements of the HNC/HCN abundance ratio to 6. The HNC/HCN ratio in comet Ikeya-Zhang appears to increase with decreasing heliocentric distance, as was previously observed for comet Hale-Bopp, indicating that the HNC is produced at least in part by processes in the cometary coma (atmosphere) and is not simply a constituent of the nuclear ices. Both comets C/2000 WM1 (Linear) and C/2002 C1 (Ikeya-Zhang) exhibit values of the HNC/HCN ratio that appear to be too large (0.09–0.19) tobe matched by current models of coma chemistry. Cometary HNC maybe a photodissociation product of organic grains or large organic polymers stored in the nucleus. We have also set a limit on the emission from the NO radical in comet WM1.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/wirvine/59/