Un­rav­el­ling life’s rid­dles

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

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.


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