Why the discovery of complex organic molecules on a comet is staggering news

Contributed by
Sep 9, 2016

We may all be aliens after all.

The Rosetta spacecraft's mission to study Comet 67P -- a Jupiter-family body that cruises around the solar system once every six and a half years or so -- is coming to an end 12 years after it was launched by the European Space Agency, but has yielded perhaps its most amazing discovery yet.

According to Gizmodo, scientists have reported that the craft has detected "complex organic molecules" in the dust surrounding the comet. These stews of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen are, in simple terms, among the building blocks of life, which lends credence to longstanding theories that the very seeds of life may have sprung not from the Earth itself but were deposited there by comets like 67P.

Although there have been hints of such molecules on celestial bodies like Halley’s Comet, Rosetta was able to actually catch the organic dust and allow researchers ample time to study it. The results were published this week in a scientific paper in Nature, focusing on two samples caught last year by Rosetta and nicknamed Kenneth and Juliette. Say hello to them, they may be your cousins or ancestors:

The lovely -- and tiny -- couple turned out to contain carbon-based molecules bound together in very large structures, similar to the organic matter found in certain meteorites here on Earth. One of the authors of the study, Herve Cottin, said that the carbon was "in a far more complex form than expected,” adding, “It is so complex, we can’t give it a proper formula or a name!”

The mention of the meteorites is significant because until now, scientists were uncertain whether meteorites found to contain organic material had picked it up after landing on Earth. But now the thinking is that if this stuff can be found on comets, it might have traveled here on the meteorites too.

Even with Rosetta scheduled to run out of juice and crash to its death shortly on the surface of 67P, the ship has more than earned its place in scientific history. And with NASA just today launching a new mission to go grab some surface samples from a local asteroid, there are more chances ahead to answer the tantalizing question: Are we all actually extraterrestrials?