Elements Of Life In Space? Rosetta Probe Discovers Organic Molecules On Comet

Kevin Bostic

As if the Rosetta comet probe mission wasn't cool enough already, the team behind the Rosetta mission says that they've discovered organic compounds in the comet's atmosphere. The discovery could give scientists new insight into the origins of life on Earth.

A report in the Wall Street Journal said that the German agency behind the Rosetta mission was currently analyzing the findings of the Rosetta probe's analytic data of the comet's atmosphere. The initial findings, though, indicated that the Philae lander had, in fact, detected organic compounds within the comet's atmosphere.

Organic compounds are the very building blocks of life on earth. The term encompasses compounds containing the carbon atom and it includes combinations as simple as methane and methanol and as complex as the amino acids that make up proteins. The Rosetta team is currently analyzing the probe's findings in order to determine the complexity of the organic compounds detected.

In addition to the probe's atmospheric sampling, the Philae probe also grabbed material samples from the comet's body using a drill. The data from that experiment has not been fully analyzed.

The team isn't totally surprised by the findings. It had, in fact, expected that organic molecules would be found on Comet 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko. The Rosetta mission, though, did provide the first opportunity to search directly for organic materials on and around the comet.

The discovery of something like an amino acid on the surface of a comet would lend credence to notions that life on Earth has extraterrestrial origins. One proposal for the origin of Earth's life posits that comets collided with Earth, seeding the planet with the materials necessary for life.

That proposal has seen previous support from other comet studies. In 2009, a U.S. spacecraft found that the amino acid glycine was present on a comet.

The Philae lander that grabbed headlines last week when it touched down on the surface of the comet has yielded tremendous data on the properties of comets, as has the mission on the whole. Rosetta has told researchers not only what a comet sounds like -- like the Predator -- but also what it smells like -- rotten eggs and cat pee, also presumably like the Predator. The Philae component of the mission is currently out of batteries, but the Rosetta team have aimed its solar panels toward the sun. That means that it will be recharging even as it rides along on the comet. Come next summer, it will likely be ready to boot up all over again.

[Lead image via NASA]