Scientists have long mused over the origins of life on Earth with one prominent theory being that, along with bringing water to Earth, comets and meteorites could have brought the fundamental building blocks of life to Earth. It seems we may be one step closer to an answer, as Philae, the robotic probe has discovered organic molecules on a comet.
After traveling through space for 10 years and over 4 billion miles (6.4 billion km), the Philae robotic probe made it’s historic touchdown onto comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko last Wednesday 12th November, signifying a milestone event for the scientific community and human civilisation in general. The landing procedure was far from planned though, with the downward thruster inactive and anchoring harpoons failing as it made contact with the surface, causing Philae to bounce multiple times over the course of two hours due to the weak gravity on the comet. This resulted in the probe coming to rest in deep shadows at the edge of a cliff.
With it’s solar panels only receiving light for 1.5 hours during the comet’s 12-hour day, the primary batteries lasted for only 57 hours before Philae lost power completely and fell into ‘idle mode’. The probe delivered everything expected of it though, with experiments carefully planned to take place within those first few hours, in the event that power could not be sustained.
It is hoped that when the comet travels closer to the Sun Philae may be able to generate enough energy to begin operating again. For now though the Rosetta satellite will continue orbiting the comet and relaying data back to Earth.
Though Philae’s time was short-lived, for the first time in human history samples were taken directly from a comet’s nucleus, and data was sent streaming back to Earth via the Rosetta satellite.
Although not many details have been released by the European Space Agency (ESA), they have stated that during the 57 hour primary science mission an instrument was used to ‘sniff’ the comet’s atmosphere. According to the German agency involved with the mission, Philae discovered organic molecules on the comet.
Philae made a very significant discovery; there are organic molecules on the comet.
Very little information has been released, though these organic molecules are the rudimentary building blocks of life, containing the carbon atom, the basis for all life on Earth. It has not been stated what other elements are present, or how complex the molecules are, understandably given the gravitas of the discovery. Until more information is released it’s hard to gauge the implications of this discovery, but the information will help scientists to better understand if comets did bring the ingredients for life to Earth, potentially helping to explain the origin of life on Earth.