Unravelling life’s riddles
INCE the dawn of time, humankind has been fired by the desire to know how exactly life on Earth began. With the landing of a probe – Philae – from the Rosetta on Comet 67P/ChuryumovGerasimenko this week, we are one step and 600 million kilometres closer to an answer. For the first time, humanity has a physical presence on the icy surface of a passing comet – cosmic objects that have both fascinated and terrified human beings since the dawn of history. The comet is orbiting the sun more than half a billion kilometres away in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.
Never before has a spacecraft touched down on a comet: Scientists described the landing as akin to dropping a fly on a speeding bullet. Travelling through space at a speed relative to the sun of more than 65 000km/h, Philae is now riding piggy-back on a 4km-wide lump of rock, ice and dust. Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko orbits the sun between the orbits of Jupiter and Earth, taking it between about 800 million km and 186 million km from the sun – part of the “builder’s rubble” left over from the beginning of the solar system nearly 5 billion years ago.
The European Space Agency’s mission has the potential to help answer so many vital questions, not least: How do the water particles on 67/P relate to those on Earth? An answer to that could tell us much about the origin of life itself.
On board the Philae is a specifically developed instrument that may yet be of use in hospitals, submarines and satellites. Two birds, one comet.
While this fridge-sized space-probe has already proved to be a scientific success and promises to deliver much more, the full significance of this feat will only emerge over coming months and years.
Humanity has always been fascinated by gazing into space and studying other celestial objects and planets.
When Neil Armstrong stepped on to the lunar surface on July 21, 1969, he set humanity on a resolute, irreversible course that will culminate in manned flights to Mars. It is a question of when.
Meanwhile, we watch Philae’s exploits with fascination.