Lander 'Sniffed' Organic Molecules on Comet

But an attempt to get a soil sample may have failed
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 18, 2014 2:52 PM CST
Lander 'Sniffed' Organic Molecules on Comet
This combination photo produced with different images by the European Space Agency shows Rosetta’s lander Philae after landing on the comet.   (AP Photo/Esa/Rosetta/Philae, FILE)

Before its battery petered out, the small spacecraft that landed on a moving comet managed to detect organic molecules on the comet, reports NBC News. An instrument aboard the Philae lander essentially sniffed the atmosphere and found evidence of the molecules, which, as the Wall Street Journal explains, are the "rudimentary building blocks of life." It might shed further light on the theory that a comet or comets smacked into a young Earth and delivered the materials necessary for life. While the discovery isn't a huge surprise, it could prove especially interesting if the molecules are complex ones such as amino acids rather than simple ones such as methane, observes the Journal.

Further study is needed to figure out what kind of molecules were found, but it looks like scientists won't be getting any help from soil analysis. The lander drilled below the comet's surface to retrieve a frozen sample, which was to be analyzed in the lander's oven, but it now looks like no sample ever made it into the oven, reports the BBC. As scientists pore over data that the lander managed to send before going dark, they continue to hold out hope that the craft, which is equipped with solar panels, will wake up in the coming months as the comet moves closer to the sun. As for the newly discovered organic molecules, "they could hold a key to early life on Earth," writes Sarah Zhang at Gizmodo. "This is a big reason we sent Rosetta all the way to a lonely comet in the first place. " (More comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko stories.)

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