Royal Astronomical Society press release
RAS PR 15/26 (NAM 4)
3 July 2015
Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, studied in detail by the European Space Agency Rosetta and Philae spacecraft since September 2014, is a body with distinct and unexpected features. Now two astronomers have a radical explanation for its properties – micro-organisms that shape cometary activity. Dr Max Wallis of the University of Cardiff set out their ideas today (Monday 6 July) at the National Astronomy Meeting at Venue Cymru in Llandudno, Wales.
Rosetta data have revealed an irregular ‘duck shaped’ comet with about 4.3 by 4.1 km in extent. It appears to have a black crust and underlying ice and images show large, smooth ‘seas’, flat-bottomed craters and a surface peppered with mega-boulders. The crater lakes are re-frozen bodies of water overlain with organic debris. Parallel furrows relate to the flexing of the asymmetric and spinning double-lobed body, which generates fractures in the ice beneath.
Dr Wallis, and his colleague Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, Director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology, argue 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.
In their model, the micro-organisms probably require liquid water bodies to colonise the comet and could inhabit cracks in its ice and ‘snow’. 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.
Sunlit areas of P/67 Churyumov-Gerasimenko have approached this temperature last September, when at 500 million km from the Sun and weak gas emissions were evident. As it travels to its closest point to the Sun – perihelion at 195 million km – the temperature is rising, gassing increasing and the micro-organisms should become increasingly active.
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”.
Wallis and Wickramasinghe cite further evidence for life in the detection by Philae of abundant complex organic molecules on the surface of the comet and in the infrared images taken by Rosetta.
Professor Wickramasinghe commented: “If the Rosetta orbiter has found evidence of life on the comet, it would be a fitting tribute to mark the centenary of the birth of Sir Fred Hoyle, one of the undisputable pioneers of astrobiology.”
Images and captions
An image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at a distance of 285 km. The images were made using the OSIRIS camera on the Rosetta spacecraft. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
A close up image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken at a distance of 130 km using the OSIRIS camera on the Rosetta spacecraft. A range of features, including boulders, craters and steep cliffs are clearly visible. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
Ms Anita Heward
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243
Dr Sam Lindsay
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7957 566 861
Dr Max Wallis
University of Cardiff
Prof Chandra Wickramasinghe
Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology
University of Buckingham
Notes for editors
The Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2015) will take place at Venue Cymru in Llandudno, Wales, from 5-9 July. NAM 2015 will be held in conjunction with the annual meetings of the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar-Terrestrial physics (MIST) groups. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Follow the conference on Twitter
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3800 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others. Follow the RAS on Twitter
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar. It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities for example in the area of astronomy, the European Southern Observatory. Follow STFC on Twitter