Phi­lae lan­der finds or­ganic mol­e­cules on comet


It re­ally could.

The Euro­pean Space Agency’s probe Phi­lae may be strug­gling to stay in touch, but its first finds on its new home are pretty spe­cial.

Trans­mit­ting from a shad­owy cor­ner of Comet 67P/Churyu­mov-Gerasi­menko nick­named “Chury,” Phi­lae found sev­eral or­ganic mol­e­cules — in­clud­ing four never de­tected be­fore on a comet, which are im­por­tant build­ing blocks of life.

Data an­a­lyzed in seven stud­ies pub­lished Thurs­day in the Amer­i­can jour­nal Science were gath­ered with 10 in­stru­ments on board Phi­lae dur­ing the first 60 hours af­ter its ar­rival on Chury, be­tween Nov. 12-14 of last year.

“None of this was known be­fore,” said pro­fes­sor Jean-Pierre Bib­ring, head of science for the Phi­lae mis­sion, telling AFP that “the phys­i­cal prop­er­ties and com­po­si­tion of a comet are noth­ing like we imag­ined.”

Phi­lae found the 4.6-bil­lion-yearold body around 75 to 85 per­cent por­ous, with a gran­u­lar sur­face in places and a rigid crust else­where.

Bib­ring said sci­en­tists had ex­pected to find an ob­ject held to­gether by ice, but in­stead found com­plex or­ganic mol­e­cules formed at the birth of the so­lar sys­tem.

Those mol­e­cules may have been the seeds of life in Earth’s oceans when they fell on our planet.

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“We have al­ready found fas­ci­nat­ing mol­e­cules that we’ve never seen on a comet be­fore,” he told AFP.

Time Capsule in Space

In to­tal, 16 com­pounds have been iden­ti­fied from six classes of or­ganic mol­e­cules, in­clud­ing al­co­hols and amino acids.

Ac­cord­ing to Bib­ring, some of these chem­i­cals form the “start of an evo­lu­tion­ary chain that could lead them to form com­plex or­ganic com­po­nents.”

The comet has re­mained in a fairly sta­ble con­di­tion since the for­ma­tion of the so­lar sys­tem 4.6 bil­lion years ago — a time capsule in space.

“I’m con­vinced that Phi­lae will help us progress con­sid­er­ably in our un­der­stand­ing of the ori­gin of life,” Bib­ring said.

The lit­tle lan­der sep­a­rated from the Rosetta probe on Nov. 12 last year and made a dra­matic in­ter­cep­tion of the comet Chury.

Hit­ting the comet at all was an achieve­ment, but dis­as­ter al­most struck when land­ing har­poons failed to fire. Phi­lae bounced be­fore fall­ing into a shadier nook than planned, un­der cliffs, where the sun could not reach its so­lar pan­els.

The lan­der was able to work for only 60 hours be­fore go­ing to sleep, but seven months later, as Chury neared the sun, it awoke.

Since June, it has been able to com­mu­ni­cate with its moth­er­ship Rosetta, hold­ing 200 kilo­me­ters away to avoid the comet’s dust and gas plumes.

On it eighth and so far last trans­mis­sion on July 9, Phi­lae sent a long burst of data.

So far, un­for­tu­nately, Earth-bound sci­en­tists have not been able to send back fresh in­struc­tions to their brave ex­plorer.

But in the mean­time, Phi­lae mak­ing the most of its mis­sion.

“Phi­lae is not dead,” Bib­ring in­sisted. “It’s mak­ing ef­fi­cient use of its sur­vival mode.”



In this Nov. 13, 2014 im­age taken by the Comet Vis­i­ble In­frared and An­a­lyzer, a panoramic cam­era sys­tem, and re­leased by the Ger­man space agency DLR on Thurs­day, July 30, shows the land­ing site Aby­dos on the day af­ter the Phi­lae lan­der de­scended onto Comet 67P/Churyu­mov-Gerasi­menko.

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