LIFE, JIM? Comet probot lander found 'ORGANICS' on far-off iceball

That's it for God, then – if Comet 67P has got complex molecules

Spitting Image God

Scientists at the ESA claim that "organic" molecules - the so-called building blocks of life itself - have been found on the icy surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the sadly now defunct Philae lander probot.

Dr Fred Goessmann, principal investigator on the Cometary Sampling and Composition instrument (COSAC), told BBC News that organic material was detected – but the team is still analyzing the results to see how complex the molecules are. Details are scant, to say the least.

Philae landed on Comet 67/P on Wednesday, November 12 after traveling hundreds of millions of miles aboard its mothership, Rosetta.

COSAC was designed by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany to look for complex organics – the building blocks for life – using a gas chromatograph and spectrometer. It sniffs the surface of the comet, and can also analyze stuff dug up by Philae's drilling equipment.

Sadly, the lander has had a really hard time delving into the comet's body. The craft attempted to hammer its Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Sub-Surface Science (MUPUS) into the rocky ground, but was unable to penetrate more than a few millimeters.

The MUPUS team report they tried the three power settings on the probe's hammer to force it through the comet's crust, and then consulted the engineer who built it to unlock a secret extra power setting dubbed "desperation mode." This broke the hammer after seven minutes of operation.

All this means that the COSAC organic detection is likely to have come from the thin layer of dust on the outside of the comet. If so it adds more weight to the theory of panspermia – that life on Earth was kickstarted by organic material from comets and meteorites.

Or it means someone sneezed on the thing before take-off, but we're told Rosetta was sterilized.

Panspermia has some influential supporters, including Prof Stephen Hawking. Researchers have claimed to have found examples of extraterrestrial bacteria inside meteorites, but there is still a debate over the veracity of the findings and if such material could survive entering the Earth's atmosphere and flourish on our world.

We're not going to know the full details of the COSAC findings for some time, but if complex carbon-based organics are found, they would add weight to the panspermia hypothesis and suggest a suitably scientific answer to the question of the origin of life on Earth. ®


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