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Is there life on Comet 67P?

by on 2015/07/07
Comet 67P on 19 September 2014 NavCam mosaic.jpg

Ever since the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission successfully deposited the Philae lander on Comet 67P on November 12th last year most of the stories in the press have concerned the fact that it had lost power a few days later and had gone into hibernation.  Now that Philae has woken up again as the comet approaches the sun, allowing more power to the lander’s solar panels, there are high hopes that it will be able to complete its mission. One part of this mission involves looking for complex organic molecules thought by some to have been involved in the evolution of life on Earth.  However, looking at some of the stories in the press this week, (Guardian, Mirror, Daily Mail, International Business Times) it may appear that this has been confirmed, and even more that life had been discovered on Comet 67P!

The source of this story is a paper presented on Monday at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomical Meeting 2015 by Dr. Max K. Wallis of the University of Buckingham, and his co-author Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe.  As this has not yet been fully published it is difficult to be entirely sure what evidence has led them to conclude that there are micro-organisms on Comet 67P but for those who have read our previous story on the discovery of life in space, the mention of Prof. Wickramasinghe should not be particularly surprising.  Along with his long term collaborator, the late Prof. Sir Fred Hoyle, he has been a major proponent of the theory of panspermia, the idea that life did not arise spontaneously on the Earth but instead derived from space, perhaps through micro-organisms which can survive in the extreme environment of space.

Looking at the abstract for the paper by Dr. Wallis it is very difficult to see where the somewhat sensational reporting has come from, it mainly concerns observations of features on the comets and some preliminary results which may indicate the presence of organic material.  However, there are some sentences towards the end reflecting a hope that later results will reveal the presence of possible micro-organisms.  The more speculative ideas in the press reports seem likely to come directly from Prof. Wickramasinghe and are being treated as controversial by other astrobiologists.

Research the Headlines try not to take sides in scientific debates, but as we have said in the past, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and we aren’t seeing that here.  In fact, the newspapers and other online news sources don’t seem to have sought out any conflicting views so far (of which there are many!).

Picture “Comet 67P on 19 September 2014 NavCam mosaic.jpg

Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

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