Philae’s comet 67P doesn’t harbour life, scientists say

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Two British astronomers hogged the headlines for a couple of days after their presentation at the National Astronomy Meeting at Venue Cymru in Llandudno, Wales centered around Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko – the comet on which European Space Agency’s Philae probe landed last year. The duo claimed that micro-organisms may be involved in giving the comet its properties.

Dr Max Wallis of the University of Cardiff and Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, Director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology, pointed out the black crust of the comet along with possible large, smooth ‘seas’, flat-bottomed craters and a surface peppered with mega-boulders and suggested that these features are all consistent with a mixture of ice and organic material that consolidate under the sun’s warming during the comet’s orbiting in space, when active micro-organisms can be supported.

They then went onto explain that based on their model, micro-organisms could inhabit cracks in its ice and ‘snow’. Further, organisms containing anti-freeze salts are particularly good at adapting to these conditions and some could be active at temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Dr Wallis said: “Rosetta has already shown that the comet is not to be seen as a deep-frozen inactive body, but supports geological processes and could be more hospitable to micro-life than our Arctic and Antarctic regions”.

We would like to point out that 67P has been under observation for a long time now and during the months of observation, ESA hasn’t found a single clue about the possibility of life in any form on the comet.

The presentation was met with a lot of skepticism with experts in the field claiming that this is ‘highly unlikely’. Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences at The Open University, penned a write-up on The Conversation where she also claims the same.

Though Grady does acknowledge that it is not completely impossible to have life on the comet, she puts forwards the argument that there are many non-biological mechanisms which can produce organic molecules, which are precursors for life, are not necessarily not created by living organisms.

“Also, photosynthesis is out, as there is no light. What chemical reactions are taking place that might drive an ecosystem? I am not certain that there is one”, she adds.

“Leaving all that aside and accepting that microbes might survive on the comet in some form of hibernation, one very significant question remains. Where have they come from? That is one of the main issues I have with the authors’ version of Panspermia, which states that life came to Earth via bodies from outer space.”

“The origin of life on Earth is not fully understood, but we are making great strides towards recognising the mechanisms that make up each stage. Placing those mechanisms in an unknown environment and suggesting that life on Earth was seeded by microbes on comets solves nothing. It merely moves the problem further away, making it even harder to study.”