Comet landing: Organic molecules detected by Philae

The Philae lander has detected organic molecules on the surface of its comet, scientists have confirmed.

Carbon-containing “organics” are the basis of life on Earth and may give clues to chemical ingredients delivered to our planet early in its history.

The compounds were picked up by a German-built instrument designed to “sniff” the comet’s thin atmosphere.

Other analyses suggest the comet’s surface is largely water-ice covered with a thin dust layer.

The European Space Agency (Esa) craft touched down on the Comet 67P on 12 November after a 10-year journey.

Dr Fred Goessmann, principal investigator on the Cosac instrument, which made the organics detection, confirmed the find to BBC News. But he added that the team was still trying to interpret the results.

It has not been disclosed which molecules have been found, or how complex they are. There’s a trade off – once it gets too hot, Philae will die as well. There is a sweet spot”

Prof Mark McCaughreanSenior science adviser, Esa

But the results are likely to provide insights into the possible role of comets in contributing some of the chemical building blocks to the primordial mix from which life evolved on the early Earth.

Preliminary results from the Mupus instrument, which deployed a hammer to the comet after Philae’s landing, suggest there is a layer of dust 10-20cm thick on the surface with very hard water-ice underneath.

The ice would be frozen solid at temperatures encountered in the outer Solar System – Mupus data suggest this layer has a tensile strength similar to sandstone.

“It’s within a very broad spectrum of ice models. It was harder than expected at that location, but it’s still within bounds,” said Prof Mark McCaughrean, senior science adviser to Esa, told BBC News.

“People will be playing with [mathematical] models of pure water-ice mixed with certain amount of dust.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30097648

 

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