Remember that little lander that got lost on Chury? What is Chury, you ask? Here’s the tale of a brave adventurer, or actually a couple.
In 2004, the Rosetta comet-chaser spacecraft and Philae lander were launched from French Guiana by the European Space Agency (ESA). Rosetta traveled for 3,907 days (10.7 years) to Churyumov–Gerasimenko also known as comet 67P also known as, you guessed right, Chury.
Philae–a washing-machine sized lander–had a weighty mission to complete after Rosetta had placed itself in orbit around the comet. It was to land on the surface of a comet, attach itself, and transmit data about the comet’s composition.
Philae had a bumpy landing, bouncing off the comet after its first touchdown and finally landing at a different site. Then after communicating for a little while, went silent. It has been communicating intermittently although not as much as was originally planned.
Although transmissions have been short, Philae has sent back valuable data. It collected gas and dust samples. The data collected by several onboard instruments have revealed 16 organic compounds. Four of these compounds have never been detected on a comet before.
COSAC analysed samples entering tubes at the bottom of the lander kicked up during the first touchdown, dominated by the volatile ingredients of ice-poor dust grains. This revealed a suite of 16 organic compounds comprising numerous carbon and nitrogen-rich compounds, including four compounds – methyl isocyanate, acetone, propionaldehyde and acetamide – that have never before been detected in comets.
Meanwhile, Ptolemy sampled ambient gas entering tubes at the top of the lander and detected the main components of coma gases – water vapour, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, along with smaller amounts of carbon-bearing organic compounds, including formaldehyde.
Importantly, some of these compounds detected by Ptolemy and COSAC play a key role in the prebiotic synthesis of amino acids, sugars and nucleobases: the ingredients for life. For example, formaldehyde is implicated in the formation of ribose, which ultimately features in molecules like DNA.
The existence of such complex molecules in a comet, a relic of the early Solar System, imply that chemical processes at work during that time could have played a key role in fostering the formation of prebiotic material.
The idea that life on Earth was brought by on a comet seems even more plausible with this discovery. And even if the little lost never speaks again, it can definitely boast of a job well done.