2014-8-8 : My Letter to the UK National Newspaper – The Independent – Rosetta hints at life on comets

(This letter appeared today in the Friday 8th August issue of The Independent, UK).

The encounter of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has generated a wave of media excitement that is surely well justified.

However, science reporters and commentators who have described the comet as a “hurtling lump of dust and ice” have unwittingly downgraded the importance of the mission. They take no account of discoveries spanning more than three decades, indicating a large carbonaceous content of comets that gives rise to their dark, coal-like surfaces. Consistent with the theories of the late Sir Fred Hoyle and the present writer, the connection between comets, life and evolution has developed to the point that a life-detection experiment on the Rosetta lander would have been amply justified.

However, for mainly cultural reasons, such an experiment was not included in the mission, and in the event only indirect support of a comet-life connection can be expected from this mission.

The rendezvous with the comet that was achieved on 7 August 2014 has led to stunning close-up images of its surface. Rough terrain of low reflectivity appears to be interspersed with smoother areas that could represent recently exposed subsurface lakes that were laden with microbial life.

The high rate of outgasing that has been observed from early June points to the action of microbial life within such sub-surface lakes.

More evidence – albeit indirect evidence – pointing to our cosmic cometary ancestry is likely to be unravelled from experiments to be conducted in the Rosetta mission in the months that lie ahead.

Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe

University of Buckingham