European Space Agency’s comet lander Philae (pictured) beamed back to Earth some data that made scientists hold their breaths for a few seconds.
The imagery and soil tests showed that Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has on its surface faint traces of sugars and amino acids that are the building blocks of life throughout our planet.
ESA scientists currently speculate that the findings may suggests the remote Universe may also host conditions that are hospitable for life. Scientists performed no less than seven studies on what Philae found before drawing their final conclusions.
A paper on the findings was published Thursday in the journal Science. The data used in the studies were gathered during the first 60 hours since the piano-sized probe first landed on the icy comet’s crust in mid-November last year.
Professor Jean-Pierre Bibring, main investigator of the Philae mission, explained that what scientists learned about the properties and physical features of a comet with help from Philae are nothing like they had imagined.
Though ESA mission investigators expected to find a thick icy crust, they found organic molecules on the surface that may be traces of optimal conditions needed to harbor life. Past studies speculate that the same molecules were the seeds of life on our planet.
“We have already found fascinating molecules that we’ve never seen on a comet before,”
Prof. Bibring told reporters during a news conference.
According to the recently published study, Philae’s instruments detected 16 elements which fall under six different classes of organic molecules including sugars and alcohols. Since the Universe’s creation, Comet 67P’s chemical structure remained mainly unchanged, researchers believe. So, they compared it with a “time capsule” traveling through space.
Prof. Bibring said that the lander may further help scientists better understand the origins of life. But some scientists argued that this endeavor exceeds science’s purposes because scientists should only operate with directly observable facts rather than imagining what happened billions of years ago in the unreachable corners of the Universe.
However, Philae had a bumpy ride to Comet 67P’s surface. First, its harpoons malfunctioned throwing it into a dark corner on the comet’s surface where it entered sleep mode for seven months. On the other hand, ESA explained that the incident was fortunate because otherwise the harpoons would have thrust the lander off the orbit due to a miscalculation.
Philae’s mother ship Rosetta deployed it on 67P’s surface on November 12. But because its solar-powered batteries ran dangerously low, the orbiter had to shut down systems until the comet was close enough to the Sun to allow it to recharge its solar panels.
Image Source: ESA