Philae, the probe that landed on a comet as part of the Rosetta mission, has detected organic molecules in the comet’s atmosphere. We don’t know exactly what the molecules are yet, but they could hold a key to early life on Earth. Hell, this is a big reason we sent Rosetta all the way to a lonely comet in the first place.
Organic molecules are any that contain carbon. We, being carbon-based life forms, are all made of such molecules. Past experiments have found that organic molecules can form on comets. In turn, scientists have suggested that comets may have brought those molecules to Earth, providing the raw materials for life to emerge on our planet.
The Rosetta team was expecting to find organic molecules on the comet, but didn’t — and, as yet, still don’t — know exactly what kind. It could be simple organic molecules like methane, which is not news. More exciting would be complex ones like amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Amino acids can be either left or right-handed, but the vast majority on Earth are left-handed. What we find on this comet could help us figure out the origin of amino acids on Earth.
To get a complete picture, scientists will need to analyse samples from beneath the comet’s surface too. One report says that the experiment to drill into the comet and analyse samples may have failed. We’re still very much in the process of piecing together the scene from 300 million miles away though. Philae may have gone dark, but scientists are working hard on analysing the data it sent back. [WSJ]
Picture: European Space Agency