The European Space Agency (ESA)’s comet lander Philae is still lost. But the washing machine-sized probe had collected plenty of data in just 60 hours of landing on the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November last year. Images and data about composition, structure and properties of the distant comet have “amazed” scientists.
Philae finds 16 organic molecules
Researchers at DLR German Aerospace Center said that Philae has found as many as 16 organic molecules on Comet 67P. Surprisingly, four of these molecules – acetone, methyl isocyanate, acetamide, and propionaldehyde – were never known to exist on comets. The lander also found plenty of carbon dioxide and benzene.
Jean-Pierre Bibring, the lead researcher for the Philae lander, highlighted the discovery of large dark grains made up of complex organic molecules. Organic molecules are building blocks of life as we know it. Dr. Bibring noted that these molecules might have formed in space even before the grains came together to form the comet. Findings of the study were published in the journal Science.
For decades, scientists have believed that comets might have seeded life on Earth, and possibly on other planets has well. In 2009, NASA’s Stardust mission brought back some debris of a comet’s tail to Earth, providing evidence that the comet contained organic compounds.
Comet 67P’s surface harder than expected
The European Space Agency launched Philae aboard Rosetta spacecraft in 2004. It took the spacecraft 10 years to travel 4 billion miles before reaching the Comet 67P. As Philae landed on the comet, it bounced and ended up in the shadow of rocks rather than sunlight. So, its batteries soon ran out. The lander woke up last month as the comet moved closer to sun and started communicating with its mother spacecraft Rosetta, which is examining the comet from several miles away. However, the ESA scientists haven’t heard from Philae for more than two weeks.
Data provided by Philae also revealed that the comet was covered with rocks, coarse debris, and pebbles measuring up to 16-feet across. Researchers were expecting dusty deposits. And its surface was much harder than expected.