Today, the European Space Agency successfully landed its probe Philae on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko following a ten-year journey through space. Excellent. Now with that accomplished, let the overheated promises pour forth that the landing will solve the enigma of life’s origins on Earth, or help reveal the existence of life elsewhere. Countdown: …3, 2, 1. Go!
- "Scientists hope the �1billion project will solve some of the greatest puzzles in science — including the origins of life on Earth." (Daily Mail)
- "Experts hope studying the inhospitable mountains and ice-filled craters of the comet will help to unlock the secrets of our how life started on our planet." (Express)
- "Opinion: How comet mission helps in search for alien life." (CNN)
- "Scientists hope that samples drilled out from the comet … will unlock details about how the planets — and possibly even life — evolved, as the rock and ice that make up comets preserve ancient organic molecules like a time-capsule." (Reuters)
- "Rosetta’s success will illuminate the origins of life — it’s a billion well spent." (The Guardian)
- "Rosetta has travelled four billion miles in its quest to find out, among other things, whether comets could have sparked life on Earth." (Telegraph)
- "Another idea is that they could have ‘seeded’ the Earth with the chemistry needed to help kick-start life. Philae will test some of this thinking." (BBC)
- "Some of the complex molecules thought to be the first building blocks for life may be preserved in 67P’s ice." (The Verge)
European space scientists indeed deserve hearty congratulations for an amazing achievement. But as for unraveling the mystery of life here or elsewhere? Get real.
At best, closely examining a comet may illustrate a scenario whereby organic molecules were delivered to our planet, or to another. It can tell us nothing about the really vital question of how the information in life arose — how those molecules became organized and arranged into complex living systems, the kind that successfully land probes on distant comets.