In November of last year, the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully landed a spacecraft, Philae, on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
ESA's Rosetta Mission is an important one for several reasons—it's technically very hard to put a probe on the comet, so the success of the mission is in itself an achievement. Plus, learning more about comets means we could better protect ourselves against death by asteroid. Oh and also, maybe there are aliens on 67P. Yes. Aliens.
Scientists Chandra Wickramasinghe and Max Wallis presented their theory at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting, which kicked off in Wales on July 5 and will end on the 9. According to Wickramasinghe and Wallis, the water sweat pouring out of 67P is likely caused by alien life.
In a brief paper, Wickramasinghe and Wallis explain:
"Quiescent outgassing such as seen from Comet 67P in July 2014 at 3.9 AU from the Sun is evidence of near-surface icy materials under a weathered crust. More distant episodes of H2O outgassing from comets, like comet 67P in Nov 2007 at 4.3AU, may be triggered by bigger meteorite impacts; but the low probability of such an event and the observed tendency for repetitive outbursts… favour another cause."
Care to guess what that other cause is? Here's what Wickramasinghe and Wallis say, emphasis ours:
"Chemoautotrophic microorganisms released into the transient lakes laden with organics would rapidly metabolise and replicate…We argue for consideration of insolation-related biological activity close to the exposed surfaces of the comet."
Chemoautotrophic microorganisms are extremophiles that don't use photosynthesis to live. They can be found on Earth in the deep ocean, where our most alien-like creatures reside. Wickramasinghe told the Guardian that he thinks information coming to us from Philae shows evidence of "microorganisms being involved in the formation of the icy structures, the preponderance of aromatic hydrocarbons, and the very dark surface." He added:
“These are not easily explained in terms of prebiotic chemistry. 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.”
In other words, whatever's happening 67P is happening too quickly to be acting without help from extremophile microorganisms. Wallis told Agence France-Presse that 67P "could be more hospitable to micro-life than our Arctic and Antarctic regions."
Still, Wickramasinghe and Wallis's conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. The Guardian notes that Wickramasinghe believes SARS came from outer space, and that the red rain that soaked parts of Sri Lanka for two months in 2001 also came from outer space (other scientists say the red rain was caused by terrestrial algae).
And astronomer Phil Plait points out that Wickramasinghe has a long history of pushing questionable science:
But Wickramasinghe did help plan the mission 15 years ago, per the Guardian, and many scientists suspect life came to Earth from comets.
But we may never know whether or not there is life on 67P, because there is no life-detection tool on Philae. Wickramasinghe told the Independent that "I wanted to include a very inexpensive life-detection experiment. At the time it was thought this was a bizarre proposition."
Thanks a lot, Europe.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.