Proponents of life on Comet 67p feeling pretty lonely right now

7 Jul 2015

Comet 67p taken by Rosetta camera. Image via ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Well it was a nice idea while it lasted but, seemingly, almost the entire scientific community has risen up to dismiss Prof Chandra Wickramasinghe’s idea that life could exist on Comet 67p, with some saying it is a disgrace that it was even given publicity.

According to Wickramasinghe, he had suggested that the European Space Agency (ESA) include a measuring device that would be capable of analysing whether there was any sign of life beneath the dark material of the comet’s surface.

As he found out, however, the scientific community within the space agency did not even give him the time of day and were quick to dismiss his suggestion, with Uwe Meierhenrich of Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, France, saying yesterday: “No scientist active in any of the Rosetta instrument science teams assumes the presence of living microorganisms beneath the cometary surface crust.”

Also, writing in The Guardian, author and science writer Stuart Clarke dismissed the notion that the instruments on board Philae are incapable of discovering life: “Life is quite picky about which chemicals it utilises; therefore, if life were present on the comet, this would recognisably boost a number of key molecules. COSAC and the PTOLEMY instrument on Philae could measure this enhancement.”

Highlighting the fact that the very issue of life on Comet 67p originated from a press release issued by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), it appears that many angry scientists are now not too pleased with the RAS.

Focusing on a talk about Comet 67p that only discussed the potential of life within it in passing, many scientists are now rather annoyed at what they see as sensationalism.

Planetary scientist Prof Dave Rothery of the Open University took to social media to give a rather frank rebuttal of Wickramasinghe’s claims: “I’ve just sat through the talk behind the press release and I think it fair to say that the audience was polite but entirely unconvinced. Diatoms [a type of micro-organism] in comets, my arse!”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic