Just moments before the European lander Philae shut down due to its primary battery running out of power, the result of an unfortuante landing in the shadow of a cliff that prevents the lander’s solar panels from using sunlight to recharge, Philae’s instruments detected what scientists allege are organic molecules that include some of the basic building blocks of life.
After a ten-year journey traveling onboard the Rosetta spacecraft, Philae successfully landed on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Unfortunately, the anchor system meant to help Philae land failed to deploy as planned, causing the 100-kg (220-pound) lander to bounce twice before settling in a location that doesn’t receive enough sunlight. Scientists, however, remain cautiously hopeful that the lander can still rotate itself out of the cliff’s shadow. “We don’t know if the charge [after the lander has been repositioned to receive additional sunlight]will ever be high enough to operate the lander again. It is highly unlikely that we will establish any kind of communication any time soon, but nevertheless the orbiter will continue to listen for possible signals,” told Paolo Ferri, ESA’s head of mission operations, to the Associated Press.
Although members of the European Space Agency’s comet team are certainly disappointed, data transmitted to the Rosetta probe, and then to Earth suggest Philae may have discovered carbon-based molecules using a gas analyzing instrument called the COSAC. According to the DLR German Aerospace Center, although the COSAC “sniffed” the comet’s atmosphere and detected organic molecules, further analysis and data are needed to determine if the compounds also include protein constructing complex compounds like amino acids, which together with carbon provide the necessary ingredients necessary for life.
Additional instruments onboard Philae include a drill meant to dig deep into the comet’s surface and the MUPUS tool that measures the density of the comet’s surface. The MUPUS tool is also designed to measure the comet’s thermal and mechanical properties. All of these tools are part of Philae’s larger mission to confirm what many scientists suspect about the purpose of comets, that they are carriers of organic compounds that can germinate planets with the necessary ingredients needed for life.