Philae Finds Evidence of Organic Molecules on the Surface of a Comet
Did comets plant the seeds for life on Earth? Early analysis of the data from Rosetta's Philae probe provided evidence for the theory that terrestrial life originated from outer space.
Last week, Rosetta's Philae lander made history when it became the first spacecraft to land directly on a comet. It had a problematic landing, in which one of its harpoons failed to deploy and, unanchored to the comet, the lander "bounced" twice, finally landing in a shadowy area in which it did not get enough sunlight to recharge its batteries. Earth-bound scientists scrambled to gather as much data as possible as time ran out for the Philae lander, and after completing its primary science mission the lander met its untimely demise.
A Wealth of Findings in Just 60 Hours
Scientists are still sifting through Philae's data, but thus far they've been able to glean a great deal about the comet's composition and potential for containing life. First, the MUPUS probe, which drilled into the surface, met far more opposition than was anticipated: "Although the power of the hammer was gradually increased, we were not able to go deep into the surface," said research team leader Tilman Spohn. This led the scientists to tentatively conclude that the comet is covered in a 10-20 cm layer of dust, followed by a thick layer of extremely hard ice.
Then, according to the ESA research team, Philae's gas analysis probe, COSAC, was able to "'sniff' the atmosphere and detect the first organic molecules" before operations shut down. While tests still need to be done in order to determine the nature of these molecules, their presence may lend credence to the theory of panspermia, or the hypothesis that life came to exist on Earth as a result of contamination from extraterrestrial structures such as comets, meteors, and asteroids.
The research team may have better luck analyzing the data if Philae wakes up again and provides further context. It is unknown exactly how likely this is, but there is a chance that Philae will be reactivated when it reaches the brief window in which it is close enough to the Sun to energize its solar panels but not so close that it is destroyed by the radiation. If this occurs, it will happen sometime in the spring of 2015.