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An instrument aboard the Philae lander detected the molecules after “sniffing” the comet’s atmosphere. An organic compound is one whose molecules contain the carbon atom, the basis of life on earth. Scientists are analysing the data to see whether the organic compounds detected by Philae are simple ones, such as methane and methanol, or a more complex species such as amino acids, the building blocks for proteins.
Credit images: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/
A drill on Philae also obtained some material from the comet’s hard surface, but data about organic molecules from that experiment have yet to be fully analysed. Comets contain some of the most pristine materials in the solar system, dating to about 4.5 billion years ago. Previous studies have suggested that comets forge organic material in their dusty atmospheres.
A study of the comet’s organic materials “will help us to understand whether organic molecules were brought by comets to the early earth,” which could have kickstarted life here, said Stephan Ulamec, the Philae lander manager and scientist at the German Aerospace Centre. The agency runs the lander control centre and oversaw the comet landing last Thursday.
Researchers had expected to find organic molecules on the comet, known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. But thanks to the probe, they are for the first time able to conduct a direct search for organic molecules in both the comet’s gases and its surface material.
The data sent back by Philae, part of a European Space Agency mission. now will be checked against similar information already obtained by the orbiting Rosetta. In early August, when Rosetta was within 200km of the comet, one of its sensors was able to study the coma, or envelope of gases surrounding the comet’s nucleus. Those early measurements detected water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, which were likely to have been released from below the comet’s surface layer. It also found traces of ammonia, methane and methanol. In October, Rosetta scientists studying the coma said they had picked up traces of the organic compound formaldehyde as well as other molecules, including sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs.
An even bigger find would be the discovery of an amino acid on comet 67P. In 2009, a US spacecraft discovered the amino acid glycine on a comet. A similar find on 67P would bolster a view that life on earth was seeded by comets that brought organic compounds with them.
Although Philae’s primary battery ran out of power on Saturday (AEDT), scientists completed a manoeuvre that has positioned one of the probe’s larger solar panels more fully toward sunlight. It means that the probe may yet come to life next year or a bit earlier, as the comet heads closer to the sun.
“We are very confident that in coming months we’ll get more sun and power and Philae can be reactivated,” Dr Ulamec said.
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