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Allen Bethea
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Philae’s Instruments Confirm Presence Of Organic Molecules On Comet 67P/C-G

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.


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