Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
UPDATE: November 28, 2014 (6:10 a.m. CST)
The organic molecules detected on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P/C-G) by the Philae lander earlier this month may be complex carbon compounds, scientists involved with the project told BBC News correspondent Pallab Ghosh on Wednesday.
“We can say with absolute certainty that we saw a very large signal of what are basically organic (carbon) compounds,” team leader Professor Ian Wright of The Open University said. “There is a rich signal there. It is not simple. It is not like there are two compounds; there are clearly a lot of things there – a lot of peaks. Sometimes a complicated compound can give a lot of peaks.”
Those so-called peaks refer to a graph produced by instruments on board Philae’s Ptolemy instrument, which indicate the different molecules detected on the comet and matches up well with previous data obtained using the German Aerospace Center’s (DLR) COSAC instrument. The detection of carbon “supports a view that comets may have brought key chemicals to Earth to kick-start life,” the BBC reporter said.
Wright went on to tell Ghosh that Ptolemy had gathered a tremendous amount of data, and that the results of their experiments could help determine the composition of the carbon and nitrogen on the comet. That information, he explained, could help scientists determine exactly what was took place while the planets were first forming.
ORIGINAL: November 19, 2014 (6:00 a.m. CST)
Before the Philae lander’s batteries depleted late last week, one of its instruments was able to detect organic molecules on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P/C-G), scientists involved with the mission have confirmed.
The German Aerospace Center (DLR) briefly mentioned in a statement released Monday that its COSAC instrument “was able to ‘sniff’ the atmosphere” and “detect the first organic molecules” before the probe was forced to enter “idle mode.”
The DLR did not elaborate, but BBC News online science editor Paul Rincon said Dr. Fred Goessmann, principal investigator on the COSAC team, had confirmed the findings, but noted that he and his colleagues were still attempting to interpret the results.
Rincon noted that the scientists did not disclose which molecules had been found, or how complex they might be. However, he noted the results “are likely to provide insights into the possible role of comets in contributing some of the chemical building blocks to the primordial mix from which life evolved on the early Earth.”
“Scientists are analyzing the data to see whether the organic compounds detected by Philae are simple ones – such as methane and methanol – or a more complex species such as amino acids, the building blocks for proteins,” added Gautam Naik of The Wall Street Journal. “A drill on Philae also obtained some material from the comet’s hard surface, but data about organic molecules from that experiment have yet to be fully analyzed.”
Analysis of the organic materials found on 67P/C-G “will help us to understand whether organic molecules were brought by comets to the early Earth,” which could have served as the catalyst for life on our planet, DLR scientist and Philae lander manager Stephan Ulamec told Naik.
While the Philae team expected to find organic molecules on the comet, the lander’s instruments make it possible for the first time to conduct a direct search for organic molecules in both its gases and its surface material, the WSJ reporter added. The data will be compared to earlier measurements, which were obtained by Rosetta and detected water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and trace amounts of ammonia, methane and methanol.
COSAC is not the only Philae instrument that has sent back scientific data, however. On Tuesday, the ESA reported in its Rosetta blog that the thermal mapper in the Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Subsurface Science instrument package (MUPUS) had recorded temperatures of nearly -153 degrees Celsius close to the floor of the lander’s balcony prior to deployment.
Furthermore, following its deployment, the sensors near its tip cooled by roughly 10 degrees Celsius over approximately 30 minutes time. Jörg Knollenberg, instrument scientist for MUPUS at DLR, said that this is either due to the radiative transfer of heat to the cold nearby wall that had previously been captured in images, or to the fact that the probe had wound up in a pile of cold dust following its rough landing on Wednesday.
“Looking at the results of the thermal mapper and the probe together, the team have made the preliminary assessment that the upper layers of the comet’s surface consist of dust of 10–20 cm thickness, overlaying mechanically strong ice or ice and dust mixtures,” the ESA said. “At greater depths, the ice likely becomes more porous, as the overall low density of the nucleus – determined by instruments on the Rosetta orbiter – suggests.”
Since part of the MUPUS instruments were contained in the harpoons, some temperature and accelerometer data could not be gathered due to Philae’s landing issues. Should the probe eventually regain power, however, DLR researchers said that they would likely use MUPUS to perform direct observations of the dust layer where the probe currently resides, and seeing if it evolves as the comet moves closer to the sun.
As for the chances that the lander will reactivate in the near future, Reuters reporter Irene Klotz noted that those involved in the mission are hopeful that, as 67P/C-G grows warmer, the jets of gas released by the comet could help lift Philae out of its shadowed area and into more direct sunlight, thus allowing its solar panels to recharge its batteries.
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Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online