Scientists have confirmed that the Philae lander has detected organic molecules on the surface of Comet 67P.
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 analyzes 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 November 12 after a 10-year journey.
It has not been disclosed which molecules have been found, or how complex they are.
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.
After bouncing off the surface at least twice, Philae came to a stop in some sort of high-walled trap.
Scientists had to race to perform as many key tests as they could before Philae’s battery life ran out at the weekend.
A key objective was to drill a sample of “soil” and analyze it in Cosac’s oven. But, disappointingly, the latest information suggests no soil was delivered to the instrument.
Scientists are hopeful however that as Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko approaches the Sun in coming months, Philae’s solar panels will see sunlight again. This might allow the batteries to re-charge, and enable the lander to perform science once more.
The lander’s Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), designed to provide information on the elemental composition of the surface, seems to have partially seen a signal from its own lens cover – which could have dropped off at a strange angle because Philae was not lying flat.
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