Philae lander finds ingredients for life

The European Space Agency’s Philae lander has discovered complex organic molecules on the surface of Comet 67P.
By | Published: July 31, 2015 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Descending to Comet 67P
Descending to Comet 67P
Complex molecules that could be key building blocks of life, the daily rise and fall of temperature, and an assessment of the surface properties and internal structure of the comet are just some of the highlights of the first scientific analysis of the data returned by Rosetta’s lander Philae last November.

Data were obtained during the lander’s seven-hour descent to its first touchdown at the Agilkia landing site, which then triggered the start of a sequence of predefined experiments. But shortly after touchdown, it became apparent that Philae had rebounded and so a number of measurements were carried out as the lander took flight for an additional two hours some 300 feet (100 meters) above the comet before finally landing at Abydos.

Some 80 percent of the first science sequence was completed in the 64 hours following separation before Philae fell into hibernation, with the unexpected bonus that data were ultimately collected at more than one location, allowing comparisons between the touchdown sites.

Inflight science
After the first touchdown at Agilkia, the gas-sniffing instruments Ptolemy and COSAC analyzed samples entering the lander and determined the chemical composition of the comet’s gas and dust, important tracers of the raw materials present in the early solar system.

COSAC analyzed 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.

Comparing touchdown sites
Thanks to the images taken by ROLIS on the descent to Agilkia and the CIVA images taken at Abydos, a visual comparison of the topography at these two locations could be made.

ROLIS images taken shortly before the first touchdown revealed a surface comprising meter-sized blocks of diverse shapes, coarse regolith with grain sizes of 4–20 inches (10–50 cm) and granules less than 4 inches (10 cm) across.

The regolith at Agilkia is thought to extend to a depth of 7 feet (2 meters) in places but seems to be free from fine-grained dust deposits at the resolution of the images.

The largest boulder in the ROLIS field-of-view measures about 16 feet (5 meters) high with a peculiar bumpy structure and fracture lines running through it that suggest erosional forces are working to fragment the comet’s boulders into smaller pieces.

The boulder also has a tapered ‘tail’ of debris behind it, similar to others seen in images taken by Rosetta from orbit, yielding clues as to how particles lifted up from one part of the eroding comet are deposited elsewhere.

Over a kilometer away at Abydos, not only did the images taken by CIVA’s seven microcameras reveal details in the surrounding terrain down to the millimeter scale, but also helped decipher Philae’s orientation.

The lander is angled up against a cliff face that is roughly 3 feet (1 meter) from the open “balcony” side of Philae with stereo imagery showing further topography up to 23 feet (7 meters) away and one camera with open sky above.

The images reveal fractures in the comet’s cliff walls that are ubiquitous at all scales. Importantly, the material surrounding Philae is dominated by dark agglomerates, perhaps comprising organic-rich grains. Brighter spots likely represent differences in mineral composition and may even point to ice-rich materials.

From the surface to the interior
The MUPUS suite of instruments provided insight into the physical properties of Abydos. Its penetrating “hammer” showed the surface and subsurface material sampled to be substantially harder than that at Agilkia, as inferred from the mechanical analysis of the first landing.

The results point to a thin layer of dust less than 1 inch (3 centimeters) thick overlying a much harder compacted mixture of dust and ice at Abydos. At Agilkia, this harder layer may well exist at a greater depth than that encountered by Philae.

The MUPUS thermal sensor on Philae’s balcony revealed a variation in the local temperature between about –360° F (–180º C) and 290° F (–145º C) in sync with the comet’s 12.4-hour day. The thermal inertia implied by the measured rapid rise and fall in the temperature also indicates a thin layer of dust atop a compacted dust-ice crust.

Moving below the surface, unique information concerning the global interior structure of the comet was provided by CONSERT, which passed radio waves through the nucleus between the lander and the orbiter.

The results show that the small lobe of the comet is consistent with a loosely compacted (porosity 75–85 percent) mixture of dust and ice (dust-to-ice ratio 0.4–2.6 by volume) that is fairly homogeneous on the scale of tens of feet.

In addition, CONSERT was used to help triangulate Philae’s location on the surface, with the best fit solution currently pointing to a 69 x 112 foot (21 x 34 meter) area.

“Taken together, these first pioneering measurements performed on the surface of a comet are profoundly changing our view of these worlds and continuing to shape our impression of the history of the solar system,” said Jean-Pierre Bibring from the IAS in Orsay, France.

“The reactivation would allow us to complete the characterization of the elemental, isotopic and molecular composition of the cometary material, in particular of its refractory phases, by APXS, CIVA-M, Ptolemy, and COSAC.”

“With Philae making contact again in mid-June, we still hope that it can be reactivated to continue this exciting adventure with the chance for more scientific measurements and new images, which could show us surface changes or shifts in Philae’s position since landing over eight months ago,” said DLR’s lander manager Stephan Ulamec.

“These ground-truth observations at a couple of locations anchor the extensive remote measurements performed by Rosetta covering the whole comet from above over the last year,” said Nicolas Altobelli from the European Space Agency.

“With perihelion fast approaching, we are busy monitoring the comet’s activity from a safe distance and looking for any changes in the surface features, and we hope that Philae will be able to send us complementary reports from its location on the surface.”