Target comet spotted


Updating Comets

Rosetta spies Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, launched in 2004, has just gone into hibernation until 2014, as it continues to cruise towards its far-flung rendezvous with a comet. Once there it will drop a lander on the nucleus and then accompany the comet as it orbits towards the Sun. Before Rosetta went to sleep, its camera OSIRIS was able to pick out its target, Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko,160 million kilometres away among the background stars. This is the picture released today from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS).

Caption: Seen in the second enlargement from the crowded starfield of the Scorpius constellation, the comet became visible as a single point of light to the 10-cm OSIRIS telescope on Rosetta, thanks to exposures totalling 13 hours. Credits: ESA 2011 MPS for OSIRIS-Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.

We had not expected to be able to create first images from so far away,” says the lead investigator for OSIRIS, Holger Sierks of MPS.

The press release from MPS is here

And from ESA here

By the way, next week (15 June) I’ll be taking part in an ESA TV programme about Rosetta and its predecessor Giotto, at ESOC, ESA’s mission control in Darmstadt.

Added 12 June: The event will start in the afternoon at 16:30 CEST. (15:30 BST) and will be webstreamed live at




Comets and life


Updating Comets and Magic Universe

Did comets spark life on Earth?

Part 1

A French team’s find of extraterrestrial dust grains rich in carbon in the snow of Antarctica is thrilling for any of us who have pondered the cosmic ancestry of life. A scarcity of carbonaceous material in the samples that NASA’s Stardust mission brought home from Comet Wild 2 in 2006 was a little disappointing – especially after the high hopes raised by molecular results radioed from ESA’s Giotto and the Soviet Vega spacecraft that intercepted Halley’s Comet in 1986, and by organic materials seen when NASA’s Deep Impact probe hit Comet Tempel 1 in 2005.

Collecting ultra-clean snow to be melted and sieved for meteoritic particles, in a trench at the French-Italian Concordia station in Antarctica. Photo Jean Duprat/CSNSM-CNRS.

But the Antarctic report by Jean Duprat and his colleagues, in the current issue of Science (7 May) puts us back on track to look for credible links between the complex carbon compounds seen interstellar space and the first living things to appear in the waters of the early Earth. That’s not just my opinion. Larry Nittler of the Carnegie Institution says in closing a commentary on the Duprat report:

The very high carbon contents of UCAMMs [ultra-carbonaceous Antarctic micrometeorites] may well have profound implications for the original delivery of organic molecules to the early Earth, with possible consequences for the earliest prebiotic chemistry.

It’s is a huge subject, stretching from the chemistry of dying stars and the search for extraterrestrial life to issues about chemical thermodynamics, the climate of the young Earth, and what surviving genes may tell us about the earliest viable entities. It’s peppered with hypotheses that I discuss in Giotto to the Comets as well as in Comets and Magic Universe. To deal adequately with this Update will take some time, so “Part 1” is a signal that there’ll be more to come.

Let me just mention that in Comets, written 30 years ago, I made fun of propositions from Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe about viable entities living in comets and being delivered ready-made to the Earth, scattered from the comets’ tails. Fred is dead, but Chandra thrives in Cardiff and has refreshed his ideas in “The origin of life in comets” (2007, Napier ref. below) and just last month in “The astrobiological case for our cosmic ancestry”. I’ll comment on those too, in the follow-up.


J. Duprat et al., Science, Vol. 328, pp. 742-5, 2010

L.R. Nittler, Science, Vol. 328, pp. 698-9, 2010

W.M. Napier, J.T. Wickramasinghe and N.C. Wickramasinghe, International Journal of Astrobiology, Vol. 6, pp. 321-323, 2007

C. Wickramasinghe, International Journal of Astrobiology, Vol.9, pp. 119-129, April 2010