Thursday, August 13, 2015

ESA Begins Sharing Philae Data From Icy Comet Surface

Scientists with the European Space Agency say comets could serve as cosmic laboratories in which some of the essential elements of life are assembled.

Last November the ESA successfully dropped a lander named Philae on the icy surface of a speeding comet.

Nine months later, the agency's scientists are beginning to share the vast amounts of data Philae collected during its first 60 hours on the comet's surface, before its batteries were depleted.

Organic compounds

ESA Senior Science Advisor Mark McCaughrean said the comet was found to contain 16 organic compounds, which raised more questions about the role of comets in shaping life on earth.

"It's all about the assembling of many, many pieces of information towards answering big questions, like the origin of water on the earth, are comets one of the origins, one of the sources of the water which came to the earth about four-and-a-half-billion years ago? Did complex molecules, carbon-bearing molecules, which are the building blocks of life, did they come from comets as well?" he explained.

Researchers say data was gathered in the hours following Philae's separation from its orbiter - the descent took around seven hours. The probe used radio waves to probe the comet's nucleus.

For one thing, scientists learned the comet is fairly porous, indicating to them the presence of water ice or carbon dioxide ice .

Instruments indicated the ice contains tiny grains of silicates and carbon-rich molecules, as well as hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. The probe also found compounds, including acetone, which had never been detected on a comet before.

No definitive evidence

Despite their discoveries, the scientists say no definitive evidence of life has been found on the comet.

Proteins, fundamental to living organisms, are made from long chains of amino acids, and the simplest one, glycine, was detected in material collected from the tail of another comet by NASA's Stardust mission a few years ago.

Philae scientists have not yet found amino acids on this comet, but that is not to say they are not there. Their experiments were cut short when the lander's batteries quit working.

Sporadic contact since June

The space probe awoke on June 14 after seven months of hibernation, but experts have not yet been able to re-establish a strong enough connection to restart experiments.

European scientists say they will focus on extracting photos and drill samples sent by Philae when they are able to make contact again.

"The Problem is not power, but communications, Aurelie Moussi from space agency CES said during a webcast Thursday. "We have to find something to do in a shorter duration.

A Philae engineer said they are hoping to come up with a workaround.
[Some material for this report came fro m Reuters and AP.]




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