Did space probe Philae prove that comets brought the water for the oceans, or even life itself, to planet Earth when the probe sniffed traces of carbon and hydrogen on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko last week?
No. It proved that the tendency towards massive oversimplification in science reporting (and science promotion by various stakeholders) is as strong as it has been since the late 1890s, when American astronomer Percival Lowell wrote best-selling books illustrated with his maps of alien canal systems on Mars.
It remains completely possible that there is micro-life on Mars today, or that there were life forms on, in, or under its features when it was a much younger planet.
Yet anything alive or organic on Mars now might have arrived there as a microbe from Earth on a Russian, American or British Mars lander, including the ones that survived for barely a few seconds before being blown over or broken by impact.
It wasn’t until the space age produced the first closer images of the red planet’s surface in the 1960s that the stake was finally driven through the heart of Lowell’s massively popular delusions about large-scale Martian engineering works being visible from earth.
One of the saner stories about what Philae detected, before its batteries went flat, appeared in The Guardian, which has this old-school hang up about keeping a reference library and checking back as to how “new” news stories really are, since the presence of organic molecules in comet particles sampled by fly-past missions and spectroscopic studies has been widely reported since 1986.
Philae’s awesome achievement lies in actually making such findings while (at last) being at rest on the surface of a comet, rather than snatching data from fragments of matter smashing into speeding sensors at 70,000 metres per second, which is what happened when the Giotto probe scorched close past the nucleus of Halley’s Comet 28 years ago.
The very latest from Philae is that comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko appears to have been completely different from anything expected. The drill that was supposed to extract a sub-surface sample failed to break through a layer of material as hard as sandstone, which might well have been ice, but could have been rock, or both.
“We are well on our way to achieving a greater understanding of comets,” Ekkehard Kuehrt, project scientific director, said in a statement. “Their surface properties appear to be quite different than was previously thought.”
Electric and acoustic experiments confirmed the comet was “not nearly as soft and fluffy as it was believed to be” underneath a surface layer of dust.
Among astronomers, the populist overloading of space missions with hyperbolic language about finding the origins of life is getting to a breaking point.
While comets may well have been a source of water and organic molecules on the surface of a younger Earth, when the solar system was full of colliding objects, these collisions were massively violent and energetic, turning water to steam, much of which would have escaped back into space, while complex molecular assemblies like amino acids would have been obliterated, only to reform, and perhaps biologically evolve over geological times scales.
The universe is infinitely large, yet enclosed it seems between the beginning of time (the big bang) and its end (an almost infinitely long process of degenerative entropy) if the consensus views of astrophysics are correct.
What would at last satisfy the popular taste for stories about discovering the source of life, or other life, in space might not be found in the forensic pursuit of molecular clues. Rather, it might come in an unambiguous, utterly terrifying or awe-inspiring moment, when “they”, whatever and wherever they are, give away their presence by accident or design.
When a world figure begins a media conference with the words: “We are no longer alone”.