Philae may have just sniffed its way into the history books.
The European-made comet lander that bounced down on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko last week is officially in hibernation, its primary battery exhausted after a 10-year trip with its parent spacecraft, Rosetta.
But while Philae is taking a power nap, scientists back on Earth are busily examining the data the feisty little lander sent home before shutting down. In a series of experiments, it used its instruments to sample the comet’s atmosphere and hammer a probe into the icy surface.
Philae “sniffed” the atmosphere, scientists say, and detected organic molecules.
That data “will help us to understand whether organic molecules were brought by comets to the early Earth,” said Stephan Ulamec, a scientist at the German Aerospace Agency who served as Philae’s lander manager, according to the Wall Street Journal. While the identification of the molecules is continuing, the mere presence of organics in the comet’s atmosphere lends credence to the theory that life on Earth came tumbling down on a chunk of fire and ice.
“We have collected a great deal of valuable data, which could only have been acquired through direct contact with the comet,” said Ekkehard Kührt, the German Aerospace Center’s scientific director for the project. “Together with the measurements performed by the Rosetta orbiter, we are well on our way to achieving a greater understanding of comets. Their surface properties appear to be quite different than was previously thought.”