Chemistry

Philae Detected Organic Molecules On Comet

November 18, 2014 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Though the Philae lander was short-lived on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it was able to return scientific data back to Earth from the first samples ever obtained directly from a comet’s nucleus. During its successful 60-hour-long primary science mission last week, Philae made a very important discovery: the comet contains organic molecules.

Not much has been released about the molecules so far, with the Wall Street Journal breaking the news on Monday. The molecules are carbon-based, but no word has been given on what other elements are present, or how complex they may be. Complex organic compounds, like amino acids, are the building blocks to life.

Philae’s mission was to determine which, if any, organic compounds existed on comets. This knowledge will allow scientists to determine if comets brought the necessary ingredients for life to early Earth. The conditions on the young Earth were not favorable for making those compounds, and it is most likely that they came from an outside source.

The discovery of the molecules was made with Philae’s Cometary Sampling and Composition Experiment (COSAC) instrument. This device analyzes compounds present in the comet’s thin atmosphere, seeking out organic and volatile compounds. 

As of right now, it is hard to tell when additional information will be provided about the nature of these molecules, and what implications they may have.

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