Comet lander Philae may be sitting on an object teeming with alien microbial life, according to two leading astronomers.
Distinct features of the comet 67P/Churyumov- Gerasimenko, such as its organic-rich black crust, are best explained by the presence of living organisms beneath an icy surface, they claim.
Rosetta, the European space craft orbiting the comet, is also said to have picked up strange “clusters” of organic material that look suspiciously like viral particles.
However, neither Rosetta nor its lander are equipped to search for direct evidence of life after a proposal to include this in the mission was allegedly laughed out of court.
Astronomer and astrobiologist Prof Chandra Wickramasinghe, who was involved in the planning of the mission 15 years ago, said: “I wanted to include a very inexpensive life-detection experiment. At the time, it was thought this was a bizarre proposition.”
He and colleague Dr Max Wallis, from the University of Cardiff, believe 67P and other comets like it could provide homes for living microbes similar to the “extremophiles” that inhabit the most inhospitable regions of the Earth.
Comets may have helped to sow the seeds of life on Earth and possibly other planets such as Mars early in the life of the solar system, they argue.
The astronomers present their case for life on 67P at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales.
Philae made history last November after detaching from its Rosetta mothership and bouncing down on to the surface of the comet, coming to rest close to a cliff or crater wall.
After being forced into hibernation by the lack of sunlight reaching its solar panels, the probe has delighted scientists by “waking up” as the comet races towards the sun.
The comet, which has been described as looking like a “rubber duck”, has two lobes joined by a thinner neck and measures around 4km across.
Currently it is about 284 million kilometres from Earth and travelling at more than 117,000kph.
Prof Wickramasinghe and Dr Wallis have carried out computer simulations that suggest microbes could inhabit watery regions of the comet.
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