Comet probe ‘sniffed’ organic moleculesOn 01/31/2019 by admin
Mankind’s first-ever probe of a comet found traces of organic molecules and a surface much harder than imagined, scientists say.
Robot lab Philae fell asleep on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Saturday, having run out of onboard battery power after 60 hours of prodding and probing an object zipping towards the Sun at 18 kilometres per second.
The lander control centre in Cologne, operated by German Aerospace Centre (DLR), said Philae had uncovered much about the comet in spite of a rough touchdown in a less-than-perfect spot.
“We are well on our way to achieving a greater understanding of comets,” Ekkehard Kuhrt, project scientific director, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Their surface properties appear to be quite different than was previously thought.”
Philae landed on “67P” last Wednesday after a nail-biting seven-hour descent from Rosetta, its orbiting mothership which had travelled more than a decade and 6.5 billion kilometres to meet up with the comet in August this year.
The touchdown 510 million kilometres from Earth did not go entirely as planned, when Philae’s duo of anchoring harpoons failed to deploy and it bounced twice before ending up in a crevice, its solar panels shadowed from battery-boosting sunlight.
The DLR said the MUPUS probe, one of Philae’s 10 onboard science instruments, hammered into the comet to discover it was “a tough nut to crack”.
Electric and acoustic experiments confirmed the comet was “not nearly as soft and fluffy as it was believed to be” underneath a surface layer of dust.
The team said Philae’s COSAC gas analyser managed to “‘sniff’ the atmosphere and detect the first organic molecules” shortly after landing.
Some astrophysicists theorise that comets “seeded” our fledgling planet with the beginnings of life-giving water and organic molecules, and hoped that analysis of “67P” would prove this.
“Analysis of the spectra and the identification of the molecules are continuing,” said the statement.
Project manager Stephan Ulamec said he was confident Philae would make contact later “and that we will be able to operate the instruments again” as the comet moves closer to the Sun.