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Has Philae discovered life on comet 67P?

ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0comet
Composite of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko as seen by Rosetta

The feedback today comes from CF of the UK, asking whether the organic molecules discovered by comet lander Philae now explain the origin of life. CMI geologist Dr responds.

Dear Friends,

My daughter and family recently visited Sir Isaac Newton’s cottage and science exhibitions [Woolsthorpe Manor, UK]. The guide was particularly keen to present an evolutionary viewpoint to the children, stating that organic matter had been found on Comet 67P by the European Space Agency robotic lander, Philae. It appears to have a hard rocky material that they have not been able to penetrate (according to the BBC), and as I understand from the same source, they have data yet still to unravel. I can’t help but expect that the BBC would make headline news of the find it there was indeed organic matter.

As your info on comets describes them as dirty snowballs, does this new find of hard material alter any creationist/evolutionist models, and have you gleaned any further information; perhaps they are concealing things in order to minimise embarrassment?

Hope you can clear a little of the confusion, and thanks in anticipation. CF

Hi CF,

This new find does not alter anything much and I don’t think anything is being concealed. There are many reports available on the internet about what Philae has revealed about 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, including the discovery of organic molecules. For example, Nature News provides much information,1 and a report by The Scientist says:

Already, scientists have found that 67P is made of water-ice beneath a thin layer of dust, and that it contains organic molecules—although which ones have not been disclosed. Such a find is important, given that scientists speculate that comets—the debris from the formation of the Solar System—may hold information about the origin of life.2

The idea that comets are debris left over from the formation of the solar system is widely accepted but it is actually unsubstantiated speculation. There are lots of unanswered problems with that scenario, which mean it is not likely to be true (See Solar system origin: Nebular Hypothesis). However, this point is a bit of a side issue.

The main point is the claim that these molecules provide new information about the origin of life. They don’t. That claim is also wishful thinking, as admitted by the use of the word “speculate”, above. It has long been known that there are organic compounds in space, so this is no surprise. The term “organic molecule” simply means a molecule that contains carbon. In some ways the term is unfortunate because it gives the impression to most people that they have found life, when they have only found a few different molecules containing carbon. But the press releases play on this public confusion to give the impression that they have found life, and the guide you spoke of has fallen for it, or is playing it up. It is really disingenuous.

DLR German Aerospace Center, CC-BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons9922-philae
Illustration of European Space Agency comet lander Philae

The difference between organic molecules and life is enormous, and there is no way they have come within a billionth of 1% of being able to explain how life could come about by natural processes. Organic molecules on their own, even if all the correct ones were present, would not create life. It’s not the molecules themselves but the way they are organized. There is no known naturalistic process that can organize non-living molecules into a living cell. A naturalistic origin of life is impossible.

If you search creation.com for “origin of life” you will find many helpful articles including this comprehensive article Origin of life, which thoroughly explains some of the amazing hallmarks of design present in living cells, and why its origin is impossible by naturalistic processes. It is worth understanding a few of the salient points so you are not taken in by these sorts of sensational claims. The reports that these organic molecules on this comet could solve the problem of the origin of life are uninformed speculation at best, and straight out deception at worst.

Most comets are like dirty snowballs, but it is not particularly surprising to find this one has some hard parts. There are lots of hard objects floating around the solar system.

All the best,
Tas Walker
Scientist, writer, speaker
Creation Ministries International, Australia

Published: 4 January 2015

References and notes

  1. Gibney, E., Philae’s 64 hours of comet science yield rich data. Comet lander is now hibernating, but has already altered our understanding of these objects, Nature News, 18 November 2014. Return to text.
  2. Grens, K., Comet Lander Finds Organic Matter. Although Philae’s active life on a comet lasted just a few days, it has confirmed what many had suspected: organic molecules are present, 19 November 2014. Return to text.

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