Rosetta’s Hopes of Understanding Life

In my post exploring the origin of life, I briefly mentioned the Rosetta spacecraft’s rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  For the first time in human history, the European Space Agency have caught a comet and landed a robotic probe (basically an entire science laboratory) on it, called Philae, as part of another of their solar system projects.  The little lander has done us proud, making contact, a couple of days ago on Wed 12 Nov 2014.

Photo from the European Space Agency of the Philae lander's view of its landing site on Comet 67P/C-G's surface. Image release Nov. 13, 2014.
Photo from the European Space Agency of the Philae lander’s view of its landing site on Comet 67P/C-G’s surface. Image release Nov. 13, 2014.

To put that in perspective, this comet has been hurtling through space at more than 30,000 mph and is over 373,000,000 miles from Earth.  It has been a 10-year long mission.  That’s all very well and interesting but this mission wasn’t cheap! What was the motivation? Why go to such extreme lengths to probe a comet that will be disintegrated by the sun in just over a year’s time?  The scientific and practical possibilities are endless but first and foremost, this is a pioneering voyage of discovery; a pursuit of knowledge to understand our universe.  Rosetta wants to answer the big questions.

I could explain how the ESA achieved this incredible feat but my blog explores life and that, too, is one of Rosetta’s aims.

It’s the question of the origin of life in particular that interests me. It’s something we humans have always asked ourselves – where do we come from? I’m hoping we get some exciting answers from Rosetta.” – Søren Vrønning, Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University

In that same blog I mentioned above, I also explained the theory of ‘panspermia’.  The idea that the raw ingredients which incepted life on Earth derived from outer space, possibly via a comet collision.  Most dismiss this as “crazy” and perhaps rightly so as there is no evidence for it.  Nevertheless, biology is the science of exceptions.  Wherever there is a rule to explain how something works, there will unfailingly exist a case which defies it.

Comet impacts are thought to have been one of the principal means by which water was delivered to the early Earth, around 3.6 billion years ago, possibly contributing half the water in our oceans. The other half would have come from the Earth’s interior.” – Professor Stanley Cowley of University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy

It is important to remember that comets are icy bodies.  While the comet may not have dispatched alien life forms from space or the Solar System to our planet, it is quite likely that comets delivered huge volumes of water (and perhaps other complex organic molecules which pertain to life) to Earth during its early stages more than 4 billion years ago.  The probe will analyse the ratio of hydrogen to it’s heavier isotope, deuterium, and compare it to the composition of Earth’s water with the aim of determining its origin.  If the ratio in the cometary ice is similar to Earth’s water then it is likely that some of Earth’s water supply originates from space.

Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” – Bertrand Russell

Complex organic compounds are rich in oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon – elements which interestingly make up nucleic acids and amino acid chains; life’s building blocks.  These have already been found in broken up comets that have collided with Earth in the form of meteorites.  On one hand, if the probe were to discover complex organic molecules like amino acid chains it would strengthen the theory that interstellar comets seeded life on Earth.  The optimism of finding actual living cells on 67P/C-G is almost delusional but my sci-fi geek-driven intransigence won’t let me discount it completely.  On the other hand, it would profoundly change our perspective on the creation and existence of life in the universe.

Rosetta may not give us a definitive answer, it will provide a wealth of information. For example, the mass spectrometers on the orbiter and the lander will analyse, more precisely than ever before, the kind of organic molecules present in the comet.” – Space Science FAQs

philae
Graphic of the Rosetta Mission’s Philae lander on final approach to a comet surface.

The objective of this mission is to understand more about the origin and evolution of our Solar System by studying the primitive material that formed as the Solar System did.  Comets have been in the deep freeze of space since the formation of our Solar System so they can provide a wealth of information on its early composition. Might humans be from outer space?

The mission will end around December next year as it is disintegrated by the sun.  A lot can happen in a year provided Philae can remain anchored…

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