Philae, Jupiter, and Life

Scientists spotted Philae, the European Space Agency’s spacecraft that crash-landed on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014: which will help them make sense of data sent back while the probe still functioned.

Other scientists think they’ve worked out where carbon near Earth’s surface came from, and the Juno orbiter has been sending pictures of the giant planet.

  1. Philae: Found
  2. Earth’s Carbon and Planetary Collisions
  3. Pictures from Jupiter

Vitalism, Mad Scientists, and Space Vampires

(Frame from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” via Netflix, used w/o permission.)
(Jump-starting Rotwang’s Maschinenmensch in “Metropolis.”)

Vitalism is a discredited scientific hypothesis that ‘living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things’. Where vitalism explicitly invokes a vital principle, that element is often referred to as the ‘vital spark’, ‘energy’ or ‘élan vital‘, which some equate with the soul….”
(Wikipedia, Vitalism)

All that’s left of vitalism these days are pop-psychology and literary references to the four humors: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic, movies like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis“— and “Lifeforce,” a rousing yarn involving Halley’s Comet and space vampires.

Vitalism made more sense back when philosophy, religion, and systematic study of nature weren’t nearly as distinct from each other as they are now.

Our definitions of what’s organic and what’s not seem somewhat arbitrary in part because today’s sciences of physics and chemistry were getting started while vitalism was still taken seriously.

Some researchers pointed out that chemical transformations involving non-living substances are reversible: but chemical transformations permanently change “organic” matter. They’re right, in a way. It’s impossible to un-cook an egg.

Then Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea. That was in 1828. John Scott Haldane (1860-1936) wasn’t, strictly speaking, a vitalist; but he wasn’t, I gather, a mechanist, either.

I’m a Catholic, so I must believe that natural processes are created by God, that the universe is beautiful, and follows knowable physical laws. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 32)

Because physical phenomena reflect some facet of the Creator’s truth, according to their nature, we can learn something about God by studying them. (Catechism, 282289, 306308)

I was going somewhere with this. Let’s see: vitalism, organic, vital spark, “Lifeforce.” Right.

The search for extraterrestrial life might be a whole lot easier if we could scan the sky for concentrations of élan vital. As it is, defining what we’re looking for has become a tad more difficult as we learn more about life and the universe.

Life and using our Brains

Defining “life” seems pretty easy. We can tell if something’s alive or not just by looking. For example, I’m alive: but a lump of rock on my desk isn’t.

It’s simple: until we start thinking about exactly how we define the difference between “living” and “not living.” Over the millennia, folks have come up with some pretty good definitions. I’ll focus on two:

  • Vitalism
    • Living things contain a life-force
    • Non-living things don’t
  • Biology
    • Homeostasis: Regulating and maintaining constant internal conditions
    • Organization: Made of one or more cells
    • Metabolism: Transforming energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components
    • Growth: Increasing the size of each internal component
    • Adaptation: Changing slowly in response to the environment
    • Response to stimuli: Changing quickly in response to the environment
    • Reproduction: Producing new individual organisms

    (Source: Wikipedia)

I like the ‘biology’ definition, as given in that Wikipedia page, partly because it doesn’t insist that “life” must be “organic.” Scientists have come up with several hypothetical types of biochemistry, including that science fiction standby, silicone biochemistry.

Now, my usual spiel about using the brains God gave us being okay.

I see no problem with studying this vast and ancient creation: even, make that particularly if, we have to revise some of our assumptions in the process.

Science and technology are tools, using them is part of being human. It’s not all there is to life, and that’s another topic. (Catechism, 1723, 22922296)

We’re created by God, designed with a thirst for truth and for God. We’re made from the stuff of this world. We’re also made “in the image of God,” creatures who are matter and spirit. Using our senses and reason, we can observe the world’s order and beauty: learning something of God in the process. (Genesis 1:26, 2:7; Catechism, 27, 3135, 282289, 355361)

1. Philae: Found

(From ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Hello, old friend: Philae (near top right, in darkness) comes back into view”
(BBC News))

Philae: Lost comet lander is found
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (September 5, 2016)

Europe’s comet lander Philae has been found.

“The little robot is visible in new images downloaded from the Rosetta probe in orbit around the icy dirt-ball 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

“European Space Agency (Esa) officials say there is no doubt about the identification – ‘it’s as clear as day’, one told the BBC.

“Philae was dropped on to the comet by Rosetta in 2014 but fell silent 60 hours later when its battery ran flat….”

The Philae lander was supposed to sample Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s surface, and drill for subsurface analysis. Quite a bit of the planned research was possible, despite the awkward landing.

Philae was designed to recharge its secondary battery during daylight hours. Fetching up as it did, lying on its side in a steep ditch, that didn’t happen. The lander’s solar cells had sunlight for only 90 minutes during each of the comet’s 12.4-hour days.

We got some exciting results anyway.

The Ptolemy and COSAC (Cometary Sampling and Composition experiment) experiments found sixteen organic compounds were detected, four of which were seen for the first time on a comet: acetamide, acetone, methyl isocyanate and propionaldehyde.

Don’t bother trying to remember those names, there will not be a test on this.

“Organic Chemistry Throughout the Universe”

(From ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team/NavCam, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The top inset shows the position on the comet; the bottom inset is a blow-up of Philae”
(BBC News))

“…Although it relayed pictures and data about its location to Earth, the lander’s actual resting place was a mystery.

“It was assumed Philae had bounced into a dark ditch on touchdown – an analysis now borne out by the latest pictures, which were acquired from a distance of 2.7km from the duck-shaped icy body….”
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News)

Those compounds with long names, like methyl isocyanate and propionaldehyde, are organic, but “organic” isn’t “alive.”

That didn’t keep us from having a little excitement last year:

We may eventually learn that Chandra Wickramasinghe, a retired professor, and Max Willis were right, but I think that’s unlikely.

What we’ve been finding is a universe permeated with life’s building blocks. As the UK Astrobiology Centre’s director, Professor Charles Cockell, said last year — the Rosetta/Philae mission results were “very significant:”

“…’It gives us better ideas about how those building blocks of life may have formed and where they may have come from.

“‘It confirms there is organic chemistry throughout the universe, that carbon-containing compounds, some of which are very complex, could be being formed on comets in our solar system.’

Prof Mark McCaughrean, the European Space Agency’s senior science advisor, told BBC News: ‘Imagine you want to build a house and you go to a forest, where there are trees, mud and rocks. You could make a house out of that, but it would be hard work.

“‘Well, we’ve now discovered the comet is more like a hardware shop – lots of pre-made building blocks, like door frames, bricks etc. It gives you a head start.

“‘One of the big questions, though, is this material made on the comet? Or is it made first in space and then incorporated into the comet? We don’t know the answer to that yet.’…”
(David Shukman, BBC News (July 30, 2015))

We still don’t know where those organic compounds came from: but we’re learning.

A Good Question, and Looking Ahead

(From ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The robot is on its side, with one of its three legs pointed upwards”
(BBC News))

“…The images from Rosetta’s high-resolution Osiris camera were downlinked to Earth late on Sunday night, and have only just been processed.

“Philae is seen wedged against a large over-hang. Its 1m-wide box shape and legs are unmistakable, however.

“Rosetta had previously surveyed this location – dubbed Abydos – without success.

“‘Candidate detections’ were made but none were very convincing.

“The difference today is a closer-in perspective and a change in the seasons on the comet, which means the hiding place is now better illuminated….”
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News)

Victor S E Moubarak asked “How are they ever going to bring back all this stuff they leave up there?” — which is a good question.

My guess is that eventually salvage crews, or maybe archeologists, will get around to picking up Philae and other more-or-less intact hardware. That’ll have to wait until we have much more efficient off-Earth transportation tech, though.

A more immediate issue is what to do about the growing accumulation of debris orbiting Earth: and that’s yet another topic.

In case you haven’t had enough of Philae and comets yet, I put images from the lander and a resource link list near the end of this post.1

2. Earth’s Carbon and Planetary Collisions

(From A. Passwaters/Rice Uni/Nasa/JPL-Caltech, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The team suggests Earth merged with a Mercury-like protoplanet”
(BBC News))

Planet smash-up ‘brought carbon to Earth’
BBC News (September 5, 2016)

Much of Earth’s life-giving carbon could have been delivered in a planetary collision about 4.4 billion years ago, a theory suggests.

“Carbon is the key ingredient for all life on our planet.

“But how Earth acquired its ‘volatile elements’ – which have low boiling points – such as carbon and sulphur remains a subject of some debate.

“A team now argues that a collision between Earth and an embryonic planet like Mercury could provide the answer….”

This idea isn’t nearly as unlikely as it might seem. Today’s Solar System is a comparatively tidy place, with most planets in nearly-circular orbits at comfortably-spaced intervals. It wasn’t always that way.

The cosmic scale of this creation has become increasingly hard to ignore, and I’ve talked about that before. (August 28, 2016)

We’re pretty sure that the Solar System, Earth included, started as a thick spot in a whacking great molecular cloud like the Keyhole Nebula. I put another resource link list near the end of this post.2

It’s a near-certainty that other stars formed from the same cloud, but we haven’t found the ‘Solar siblings.’ Not as of 2010, at any rate, and that’s yet again another topic.

“The Dynamics Could Work”

(From Rajdeep Dasgupta, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

“…According to a widely accepted idea called the Late Veneer Hypothesis, Earth formed from material that was largely devoid of volatiles. These elements, such as carbon, sulphur, nitrogen and hydrogen, were added later on by space rocks after Earth’s core had finished forming.

“‘Any of those elements that fell to Earth in meteorites and comets more than about 100 million years after the Solar System formed could have avoided the intense heat of the magma ocean that covered Earth up to that point,’ said Yuan Li, from the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“‘The problem with that idea is that while it can account for the abundance of many of these elements, there are no known meteorites that would produce the ratio of volatile elements in the silicate portion of our planet.’…”
(BBC News)

Where was I? Solar System origins, cosmic scale, planetary collisions. Right. I wouldn’t worry about Mercury hitting Venus, by the way. In the sort term, the next several million years in this case, their orbits should stay pretty much where they are now.

How concerned our descendants get, when and if the collision is imminent, may depend on where the debris is likely to go; and whether we’ve terraformed Venus by then. And that’s still another topic.

Like I said, given what we’re learning about the early Solar System, this idea isn’t all that unlikely.

One of the more plausible explanations for our moon’s origin is that our planet and another one, about the size of Mars, collided some 20,000,000 to 100,000,000 years after the planets formed.

What’s attractive about this hypothesis is that — I’ll let one of the scientists explain it:

“…’Because it’s a massive body, the dynamics could work in a way that the core of that planet would go directly to the core of our planet, and the carbon-rich mantle would mix with Earth’s mantle,’ said Dr Dasgupta.”
(BBC News)


3. Pictures from Jupiter

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Juno took this picture as it flew over the north pole, from a distance of 195,000km”
(BBC News))

Juno probe returns close-up Jupiter pictures
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (September 2, 2016)

The US space agency (Nasa) has released spectacular new images of Jupiter acquired by its Juno probe.

“The pictures show the swirling clouds of the gas giant at both its poles – views that no previous mission has managed to acquire in such detail.

Juno captured the data last weekend as it made its first close approach to the planet since going into orbit in July.

“The flyby took the spacecraft just 4,200km above Jupiter’s multi-coloured atmosphere….”

I talked about Juno and Jupiter when the spacecraft settled into Jupiter orbit. (July 29, 2016)

Recapping, data from Juno’s instruments should tell scientists how much of Jupiter is water, and help them map the planet’s magnetic and gravitational fields.

That’s a big deal for folks who wonder how Jupiter, and the Solar System, formed; and what powers Jupiter’s magnetic field.

They’ll also be measuring orbital frame-dragging around Jupiter. That’s what happens when moving concentrations of mass-energy drag space-time along with them. It’s also called Lense-Thirring precession, and again: there will not be a test on this.

Jovian Poles

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“South Pole: Such views have never before been acquired at Jupiter”
(BBC News))

“…The 6MB of data downlinked to Earth from the encounter is still being analysed, but principal investigator Scott Bolton said new things were already obvious.

“‘First glimpse of Jupiter’s north pole, and it looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before. It’s bluer in colour up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms,’ the Southwest Research Institute scientist explained in a Nasa statement.

“‘There is no sign of the latitudinal bands or zones and belts that we are used to – this image is hardly recognisable as Jupiter.

“‘We’re seeing signs that the clouds have shadows, possibly indicating that the clouds are at a higher altitude than other features.’…”
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News)

I’ll admit that Jupiter’s south pole looks pretty much like the planet’s north pole. That’s probably not such a big surprise. Neither, I suppose, are the differences between Jupiter’s equatorial regions and its poles.

Juno, Jupiter, and Looking for Life

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The southern hemisphere of Jupiter pictured from a distance of 38,000km”
(BBC News))

“…The spacecraft is currently flying on an ellipse around Jupiter that takes 53 days to complete. Its next close approach is due on 19 October, when the probe will fire its main engine to tighten the circuit to just 14 days.

“This configuration will then be held until February 2018 when the spacecraft will be commanded to make a destructive dive into Jupiter’s atmosphere….”
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News)

Juno is one probe we won’t be recovering, and for good reason. Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, almost certainly has a substantial ocean under its ice. That, the moon’s chemistry, and energy from tidal flexing, make it one of the most likely places for extraterrestrial life in the Solar System.

If, make that when, we land a thoroughly-sterilized probe on Europa, we’ll want to be reasonably certain that any terrestrial organisms we find there didn’t hitch a ride on a recent spacecraft.

Inevitably, I put links near the end of this post.3

Terrestrial life on Europa wouldn’t prove that alien astronauts were here. We’ve been learning that spatter from large impacts could transfer living microcritters from one planet to another. Maybe:

How likely that is — yeah, that’s another topic.

Posts which aren’t entirely unrelated:

1 Images from Philae, and a resource link list —

(From ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The discovery helps put earlier images like these, from Philae’s own cameras, into context”
(BBC News))

More than you need to know:

2 The Solar System’s early years — or — bumper cars, played with planets:

3 More about Juno, Jupiter, and all that:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Philae, Jupiter, and Life

  1. Naomi Gill says:

    Extra word? Or maybe missing word: “transformations involving by non-living”

    Are you sure you wanted to use a negative here? “Now, my usual spiel about not using the brains God gave us being okay.”

    Extra word: “only 90 minutes every during each of the comet’s 12.4-hour days.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

  2. Pingback: Europa, Mars, and Someday the Stars | A Catholic Citizen in America

  3. Pingback: ESA’s Gaia, HD 164695, and SETI | A Catholic Citizen in America

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