As Philae continues to probe Comet 67p with its array of monitoring equipment, a team of astronomers says that, from what we’ve seen so far of the comet’s surface, there could be a good chance of discovering microbial life.
The Philae lander – whose information is regularly being beamed back by the Irish-built Electrical Support System (ESS) processor unit – is making more discoveries by the week, telling scientists back at the headquarters of the European Space Agency (ESA) what Comet 67p’s make-up is.
And now, astronomer and astrobiologist Prof Chandra Wickramasinghe, along with his colleague Dr Max Wallis from the University of Cardiff, says that the black crust that envelopes the comet could be explained by the existence of living cellular organisms within it.
According to The Guardian, their appeals during the planning process for the mission to include equipment on Philae that would be capable of analysing samples with the hope of finding life was rejected outright by the ESA as a waste of resources.
However, they defended their suggestions with the belief that Comet 67p could be capable of harbouring extremophile forms of life similar to ones found living in or around the extreme temperatures of Earth.
The existence of life on comets has long been held as a possibility for the origins of life here on Earth due to the crashing of a comet here on Earth billions of years ago and is referred to in scientific circles as panspermia.
To test the possibility of life on Comet 67p, both Wickramasinghe and Wallis created a computer simulation that suggests that micro-organisms that contain anti-freeze salt could exist in frozen water beneath the black hydrocarbon crust, allegedly formed by the organic material.
“These are not easily explained in terms of prebiotic chemistry,” Wickramasinghe said. “The dark material is being constantly replenished as it is boiled off by heat from the sun. Something must be doing that at a fairly prolific rate.”
Speaking of the challenges they face from the community, Wickramasinghe said: “500 years ago it was a struggle to have people accept that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. After that revolution our thinking has remained Earth-centred in relation to life and biology. It’s deeply ingrained in our scientific culture and it will take a lot of evidence to kick it over.”
Microbes in space image via Shutterstock