The search for signs of life outside the planet Earth has remained an elusive task for scientists throughout the years, but a recent discovery by researchers at the European Space Agency (ESA) could possibly hold the key to answering the mystery of life in the cosmos.
According to the space agency, data collected by the Philae lander has revealed potential evidence of life on the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Experts believe living organisms could be found beneath the space rock's icy surface.
This discovery is supported by data retrieved from the Rosetta spacecraft, which detected strange clusters of organic material that appear to be viral particles.
The ESA made history in November 2014 when its Philae lander became the first spacecraft to ever land on a comet. The space probe had to go into hibernation for several months to recharge its solar cells, but it has resumed its scientific study of Comet 67P after reactivating itself last month.
Further analysis of the potential organic material, however, cannot be carried out as both the Philae and Rosetta spacecraft are not equipped for this task. A proposal to include this functionality in the mission was reportedly left out by mission planners.
Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, an astronomer and astrobiologist involved in the planning of the space mission 15 years ago, explained that people should be more open to the idea of life in other worlds.
Wickramasinghe noted how people had a difficult time understanding that the Earth was not the center of the universe 500 years ago. He said that the perception of the public in relation to biology and life has remained Earth-centered, and it will take strong evidence in order to change it.
Dr. Max Wallis, Wickramasinghe' colleague from the University of Cardiff, shares the professor's belief that comets, such as 67P, could provide suitable homes for microorganisms similar to the extremophiles found in the Earth's most inhospitable areas.
Both scientists argue the possibility that comets might have helped generate life on Earth as well as on other planets such as Mars.
Computer simulations were also created to demonstrate how microorganisms could inhabit the comet's watery regions. The models also show how microbes with anti-freeze salts could survive even at temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius.
The 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet features a black hydrocarbon surface covered with ice and icy seas. It also has flat-bottomed craters with re-frozen water lakes containing organic material.
Wickramasinghe said that data retrieved from the comet appear to show that microbes could have been involved in the creation of ice formations, the widespread presence of aromatic hydrocarbons and even the space rock's own dark appearance.
"These are not easily explained in terms of prebiotic chemistry," Wickramasinghe said.
"The dark material is being constantly replenished as it is boiled off by heat from the sun. Something must be doing that at a fairly prolific rate."
The findings of the scientists regarding life on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko are being presented at the National Astronomy Meeting in Wales, organized by the Royal Astronomical Society.