Oh, btw - remember that comet? It contained organic molecules.
November 18, 2014 1:13 PM   Subscribe

BBC: "The Philae lander has detected organic molecules on the surface of its comet [67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko], scientists have confirmed. Carbon-containing "organics" are the basis of life on Earth and may give clues to chemical ingredients delivered to our planet early in its history."

Spaceflight Now: "One of Philae’s sample analysis sensors - named COSAC - did collect data in 'sniff' mode and detected organic molecules, presumably outgassing just above the comet’s surface."

The Australian: "Scientists are analysing the data to see whether the organic compounds detected by Philae are simple ones — such as methane and methanol — or a more complex species such as amino acids, the building blocks for proteins."

International Business Times: "The Philae space probe was powered down earlier than expected, but not before an instrument discovered an organic compound that was first detected in the comet’s atmosphere, the Wall Street Journal exclusively reported Monday. The find is extraordinary considering the organic compound contains the carbon atom, which is the basis of life on planet Earth."

Gizmodo: "Organic molecules are those that contain carbon. We, being carbon-based life forms, are all made of such molecules, but organic molecules may actually have extraterrestrial origins. Simulations have suggested that ultraviolet radiation bombarding icy particles can form organic molecules out in space. In turn, comets could have brought those molecules to Earth, providing the raw materials for life on our planet."
posted by Wordshore (63 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Philae's going to crash in Mexico, isn't it?
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:19 PM on November 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


There is something quite moving about the idea that we were born in space, in a rock hurtling through the sky, bathed in the fires of a far off sun and sprung into being in the most inhospitable place imaginable, where there in unfathomable cold and unimaginable distance to the next place --

but I'm talking about earth, aren't I?
posted by maxsparber at 1:22 PM on November 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


Wow. Just landing on the damn comet wasn't impressive enough?
posted by From Bklyn at 1:22 PM on November 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


Go team Panspermia!
posted by saulgoodman at 1:26 PM on November 18, 2014 [20 favorites]


A long sighted response to the childhood question of "where do babies come from" could be "ultraviolet radiation bombarding icy particles," which I suppose also serves as a really weird double-entendre.
posted by GoblinHoney at 1:29 PM on November 18, 2014 [22 favorites]


Of course organic molecules have extraterrestrial origins. All the carbon in the universe is the result of stellar fusion, which is in short supply on earth. Are people assuming this means all the carbon on earth came from comets, or that organic molecules = signs of life?
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 1:46 PM on November 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


I just wanna say, when something has a Russian name, or even better two Russian names connected by a hyphen, it just makes it fifty times cooler, no matter what it is. All of it reminds me of STALKER and alternate-universe Cold War stuff like that Charles Stross novella I never mention everywhere.

Also, comets!
posted by turbid dahlia at 1:48 PM on November 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


A long sighted response to the childhood question of "where do babies come from" could be "ultraviolet radiation bombarding icy particles," which I suppose also serves as a really weird double-entendre.

Well, first you have to invent the universe.
posted by brundlefly at 1:52 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


all these comets are yours, except 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko...
posted by j_curiouser at 1:59 PM on November 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


Comets are cosmic spermatozoa. Everyone knows this.
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 2:21 PM on November 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


Mr.Encyclopedia: "Of course organic molecules have extraterrestrial origins. All the carbon in the universe is the result of stellar fusion, which is in short supply on earth. Are people assuming this means all the carbon on earth came from comets, or that organic molecules = signs of life?"

From the OP: "Scientists are analysing the data to see whether the organic compounds detected by Philae are simple ones — such as methane and methanol — or a more complex species such as amino acids, the building blocks for proteins."

The difference is not trivial in this context.
posted by Splunge at 2:25 PM on November 18, 2014 [8 favorites]


This would be amazing if confirmed. Makes my day!
posted by Windopaene at 2:26 PM on November 18, 2014


The difference is not trivial in this context.

No, but just finding simple organic compounds would be pretty interesting.

Amino acids would be profound, but I doubt anyone is seriously expecting that.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:32 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Of course organic molecules have extraterrestrial origins. All the carbon in the universe is the result of stellar fusion, which is in short supply on earth. Are people assuming this means all the carbon on earth came from comets, or that organic molecules = signs of life?

I hope someone more knowledgable can chime in on this but the science behind this is way more fascinating that is being reported. But then the news hardly ever does science well.

For one thing, NASA's Stardust mission has already found an amino acid in a comet's halo - so the stakes for the Rosetta mission are actually a little higher than "find an organic chemical". They presumably want to see if there's anything still more complex, or if there are other interesting life-associated organic chemicals up there.

Some genuine driving forces behind some of this are in the ideas of respected astronomers Hoyle and Wickramasinghe a few decades ago. It's worth stressing "respected" as their theories were pretty um, radical at first blush: life, DNA, cells, all organic chemistry, even the driving forces of ongoing evolution in higher species, arrived and arrives via comets from some mystery part of the cosmos, and would otherwise not be present on earth. They backed up what they claimed with some interesting data - that certain epidemic illnesses, generally thought to be spread by contagion, actually are cyclical and synchronise with the orbits of comets around the earth. That the spectrum of light from a comet's tail closely matches the spectrogram of an E. Coli cell. It's an extraordinarily "out there" theory, in more ways than one, but it hasn't gone away as an idea. One of those authors, Chandra Wickramasinghe, has worked as part of the Rosetta team.
posted by iotic at 2:33 PM on November 18, 2014 [12 favorites]


...that certain epidemic illnesses, generally thought to be spread by contagion, actually are cyclical and synchronise with the orbits of comets around the earth.

I'm...struggling with this. What is the mechanism?
posted by werkzeuger at 3:06 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Comets cause Ebola, duh.
posted by um at 3:09 PM on November 18, 2014


Microorganisms have been found living in the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere; presumably the idea is they sometimes hitch a ride on space debris that enters the upper atmosphere (there's actually a lot of stuff that ends up there from parts unknown).
posted by saulgoodman at 3:12 PM on November 18, 2014


But to be clear, the evidence for such an effect is still highly controversial.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:14 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


...that Charles Stross novella I never mention everywhere.

A.k.a. NOVELLA INNOMINANDA
posted by The Tensor at 3:18 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Chandra Wickramasinghe

This stuff is fringe at best. It's very close to being totally off-the-rocker crankery. The "journal" where a lot of these ideas have been published is a joke.

Read this post (and follow-up posts) on Bad Astronomy before considering any of these claims as serious.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:22 PM on November 18, 2014 [10 favorites]


I'd love to get excited about this but the planets and moons of the solar system are full of hydrocarbons like methane and its various lighter photochemical products, and almost certainly heavier stuff down in the hot and high-pressure areas where we can't detect it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:22 PM on November 18, 2014


I'm...struggling with this. What is the mechanism?

Michael Crichton wrote a long expose about the discovery and response of one such strain that came from Andromeda back in the 60s.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:25 PM on November 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


In order to test Chrichton's hypotheses, the next probe will include an old drunk and a crying baby.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:39 PM on November 18, 2014 [15 favorites]


Patrick Macnee put it best when he said
There are those who believe that life here began out there: far across the Universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans.

Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight to survive, somewhere beyond the heavens.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:40 PM on November 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


The panspermia debate does have important consequences for our view of the universe. If panspermia is true to some degree (not viruses drifting down from comets, but maybe some kind of extremophile bacterium that can survive being encased in meteors colonizing Earth's primitive oceans), then there should be life all through space. Anywhere there's liquid water you'd probably find life of some kind. But if life spontaneously developed on Earth (the current dominant theory), then there's no way of knowing how common it may be beyond this planet.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:51 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Velikovsky was right!
posted by MtDewd at 4:17 PM on November 18, 2014


Velikovsky right? No, but he did have a cool Russian name.
posted by hexatron at 4:23 PM on November 18, 2014


Have they released any footage of the actual landing yet? All I've been able to find is CGI.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:38 PM on November 18, 2014


Comets cause Ebola, duh.

It was a pre-emptive strike. We did send a missile travelling 135,000 kph at it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:53 PM on November 18, 2014


Have they released any footage of the actual landing yet? All I've been able to find is CGI.

I feel like an ingrate, but with the exception of a handful of amazing photos in the last few weeks, it feels like there's been a relative scarcity of images released to the public from this mission. Or, at least, they've been difficult to locate compared with images from NASA missions. Is there not some website that serves as a central clearinghouse for ESA images?
posted by Atom Eyes at 4:56 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Is there not some website that serves as a central clearinghouse for ESA images?

I've been going here, but I'm not sure if there's another place to get at this stuff.
posted by Chutzler at 5:01 PM on November 18, 2014


> "It's worth stressing 'respected' as their theories were pretty um, radical at first blush ..."

With all due respect to Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, who are indeed real scientists who have added much to the sum of human knowledge, Hoyle was, and Wickramasinghe is, generally regarded as being nuts about this particular issue. Every serious astronomer I know of who has looked at their panspermia-related work has said there is nothing real backing it up.

This does NOT mean that panspermia in some form cannot possibly be true. But none of their work can be seriously cited as evidence for it.
posted by kyrademon at 5:10 PM on November 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


IIRC Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko is about 30 cubic km in size standard US nukes have a yeild of 475kilotons and leave craters about .13 cubic km in size. So to be sure we'd need 231 w88 warheads at an estimated 400kg each. We can probably launch 5 per rocket along with an appropriate craft and fuel to get them to the comet. So 47 launches. The rockets cost about $200 at the volumes we are looking for . Figure another $500 million for each spacecraft and each warhead costs is $100 million or so. This we arrive at a cost of close to $60 billion. Of course the project will take several years to get the launches completed and increase rocket production so the true cost is probably 2-3 times that in operational overhead and governement project fuckery. I'm confident we can destroy the comet for less than $300 billion dollars.
posted by humanfont at 5:27 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Comets are cosmic spermatozoa. Everyone knows this.

Ontogeny recapitulates cosmology.
posted by stargell at 5:34 PM on November 18, 2014 [9 favorites]


The Hoyle and Wickramasinghe theory is based on the very real observation that if you shine light through freeze-dried E. Coli you get some pretty good matches to absorption features seen in the interstellar medium (i.e. the stuff between the stars). This result led them to speculate... wildly, I would say.

The match in the absorption features was actually one clue among many that led astronomers to discover the importance of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in space. It turns out that the absorption features seen by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe were just C-H (Carbon-Hydrogen) bonds, of the type that are abundant in many molecules -- some of which are very important in life (and are present in all cells, bacteria include) -- but some of which can be produced by entirely abiotic processes (i.e. without life).
posted by sedna17 at 6:31 PM on November 18, 2014 [7 favorites]


This was my favourite video of the landing!
posted by cacofonie at 6:40 PM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Have they released any footage of the actual landing yet?

Their blog has a series of snapshots of the first bounce taken from Rosetta, at least.
posted by mubba at 6:40 PM on November 18, 2014


I haven't been following the details of this mission as close as I maybe should, but I'm surprised they only had a week on the battery. We've been driving a car around on Mars for two years now - I'd have thought they'd put a radiothermal generator on Philae. Too much mass?
posted by echo target at 7:52 PM on November 18, 2014


Lots of people are speculating on why there was no RTG (radiothermal generator, basically a battery getting its energy from the heat of radioactive decay) on Philae. NASA has used them on several probes in the past including the Curiosity on Mars.

My guess: ESA doesn't have RTGs--they'd have to get them from NASA or Russia. Also Philae is very small. You are tying up half the weight of the probe which is better used for more experiments if solar will work.

Solar would have worked. They weren't counting on the hard ice under the dust causing a large bounce from the intended landing spot. (Solar may yet work. Let's hope!)
posted by eye of newt at 8:16 PM on November 18, 2014


This is really fun and somewhat related.
Ambition The Film
Ambition is a collaboration between Platige Image and ESA. Directed by Tomek Bagiński and starring Aiden Gillen and Aisling Franciosi, Ambition was shot on location in Iceland, and screened on 24 October 2014 during the British Film Institute’s celebration of Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, at the Southbank, London.
posted by dougzilla at 8:33 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Think you wanted this link, dougzilla. That one's a copy someone's tucked into his own account. Also it has encoding problems and and is missing half the credits.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:57 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Let me grumble about how the field of chemistry decided to use the word 'organic' to refer to anything involving carbon. It's an eternal source of confusion.
posted by Anything at 12:31 AM on November 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


The find is extraordinary considering the organic compound contains the carbon atom, which is the basis of life on planet Earth.

Also, water is wet.
posted by kagredon at 12:55 AM on November 19, 2014


Also, water is wet.

Not on Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
posted by univac at 1:45 AM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


On Soviet Comet, wet is water?
posted by pulposus at 4:30 AM on November 19, 2014


Well, then, that certainly justifies the billion dollar cost of this little adventure.
posted by spitbull at 4:43 AM on November 19, 2014


> "Well, then, that certainly justifies the billion dollar cost of this little adventure."

Space exploration in particular has actually already had a pretty great return on investment in terms of materially improving human life, directly leading to advances in satellite telecommunications, global positioning, weather forecasting, solar panels, implantable heart monitors, cancer therapy, light weight materials, water purification systems, improved computing systems, search and rescue systems, power generation, energy storage, recycling and waste management, and advanced robotics, among other things.

But honestly, I'd say that even without the many things the technological development of space exploration has brought and will bring in the future, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is most often worth it. It can frequently yield unexpected and unpredictable benefits itself, sometimes ones that are not obvious at the time, and the advancement of knowledge is an important goal in and of itself.
posted by kyrademon at 5:11 AM on November 19, 2014 [15 favorites]


Agreed. Also, the super-rich take many more billions out of the system than space missons. Making a fairer society should concentrate on reducing wealth disparity, before saying we shouldn't have fascinating scientific explorations such as this.
posted by iotic at 5:21 AM on November 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


That was cool dougzilla (link corrected by George_Spiggott).
posted by asok at 5:34 AM on November 19, 2014


I'm...struggling with this. What is the mechanism?

People get excited about comets and forget proper hand washing techniques allowing for the spread of disease.
posted by mountmccabe at 7:30 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Space exploration in particular has actually already had a pretty great return on investment in terms of materially improving human life, directly leading to advances in satellite telecommunications, global positioning, weather forecasting, solar panels, implantable heart monitors, cancer therapy, light weight materials, water purification systems, improved computing systems, search and rescue systems, power generation, energy storage, recycling and waste management, and advanced robotics, among other things.

And we wouldn't have space exploration without the Nazis. Therefore, the Holocaust was worth it?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:12 AM on November 19, 2014


Are you honestly making an equivalence between deciding how to allocate non-essential spending and the industrial murder of twelve million people? I guess if you're going to make a really bad argument, you might as well Godwin it.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:39 AM on November 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


Pretty sure there were Germans already working on rocketry before the Nazis coopted them, much like the other innovations coming out of Germany in the 1920s-30s. It's a strange case to make at any rate.
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 8:52 AM on November 19, 2014


And there were already people working on solar panels, implantable heart monitors, cancer therapy, etc. long before space exploration.

This is my point. Just because something created a push for innovation doesn't mean that innovation wasn't already happening.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:58 AM on November 19, 2014


Well, of course, but:

1) It is reasonable to say that things that create a push for innovation can increase the amount of innovation,

2) While spending money in other ways might have achieved the same or a different set of benefits, I actually said that I thought space exploration in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake would be worth it even without the increased innovation that accompanies it, for both practical and philosophical reasons, and

3) If you really want my answer to your question, then I will state for the record that if ESA had deliberately and cold-bloodedly murdered millions of people in order to finance or otherwise implement the Rosetta mission, then yes, I would have been against it.
posted by kyrademon at 9:16 AM on November 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


[Can we please drop the Godwin derail? thanks]
posted by mathowie (staff) at 9:25 AM on November 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


The billions spent on this mission were all spent on Earth. Hundreds of people have challenging high wage jobs working at ESA and its suppliers, and the money they spend supports economic activity elsewhere.

This is far more useful spending than building another oligarch's superyacht.
posted by monotreme at 9:52 AM on November 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


Though I would be in favor of landing a few oligarchs on a comet, even if it meant literally crash-landing a couple billion dollars in cash as well.
posted by General Tonic at 10:22 AM on November 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


I will state for the record that if ESA had deliberately and cold-bloodedly murdered millions of people in order to finance or otherwise implement the Rosetta mission, then yes, I would have been against it.

What if I told you the ESA sucked up more than four billion Euros a year while austerity measures slashed education and healthcare? Hmm. It may not quite be mass murder, but it's nothing to cheer about.

The billions spent on this mission were all spent on Earth.

Well, thank christ none of it went to the Ferengi. But, wait, you mean they didn't send up any spacecraft? I guess that would explain the lack of non-CGI footage.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:16 AM on November 19, 2014


4 billion euros contributed by 20 member states, with varying levels of commitment and economic health. I commend your attempt at trolling this in the most blatantly lazy way possible, but you could really suck in more people if you upped your game just a bit.
posted by kagredon at 11:32 AM on November 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


But, wait, you mean they didn't send up any spacecraft?

Yes, but space sent down far more than that in the form of meteors so we're still up on the deal. Are you seriously doing this? You can't get a coffee in a lot of European cities for what the Rosetta mission cost per-European.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:04 PM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]




I always find it hilarious when people complain about the cost of space missions. It's comparative pocket change.
posted by brundlefly at 10:26 AM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


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