Comets contain building blocks of possible life - Rosetta project scientist

Colonization of Mars, bases on the Moon, harnessing asteroids and finding someone else in the dark ocean of space - the dream of space is, probably, the oldest dream of mankind, ever since the first man looked in the night sky. Today, this dream is pushing the brightest minds on Earth to seek ways to tame the final frontier. The Rosetta mission took 10 years - but isn’t catching a comet and riding it around the Sun an enterprise worthy of praise? But breakthroughs can this particular mission actually bring? And, in the end, is reaching out for the stars inevitable for humanity? We speak to the man behind the Rosetta mission - astrophysicist Matt Taylor is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevarnadze:  Matt Taylor, it’s really great to have you with us and talk about space exploration - something I’m fascinated about. So, let’s start with a Rosetta mission, right. It’s decade old, it has travelled, what, 7 billion kilometers or something like that to a far away place that resembles a cold mountain, very far from Earth… What’s that all about?

Matt Taylor: Rosetta is an extravagant mission, as you said, it took a decade to get where it is.We sent it to go and chase a comet, comet’s are interesting for us, scientifically, because they are some of the leftover material from when the Solar system began. So, we study comets because they’re full of stuff that was there right at the beginning and so, we’re studying that so that we get an idea of what the ingredients were that went to form planets, from Sun, and we’re trying to what the dynamic process was, to find out, ultimately, why we on Earth are here.

SS:So, landing a spacecraft on a speedy comet was a breakthrough in space exploration, right? So, when you actually heard that that had happened, what were your feelings?

MT:I say I always thought it was going to happen. That was part of the mission. The mission wasn’t only to deploy Philae onto the surface, we have the Rosetta orbiter that’s been investigating the comet up to November last year and has been doing this since november, but that was a relief, that the lander landed, it landed more than once - but it was a sense of achievement for everyone that had been involved in this. There are people who have invested their entire lives in this one mission, and so to see that working at full at that time was something special for many people.

SS:So, like you said, one of the mission of Rosetta is to uncover the origins of life here on Earth - but how does landing on a comet actually help you with that? What’s the… I don’t understand, what’s the secret - it’s like a big bulk of dirty ice, how’s that help you?

MT: But that dirty ice, you can connect, possibly, to the Earth. In the early Solar system, we believe the Earth didn’t have any water on it at all. Something must have brought the water back for us to be here, so we look at comets, because they’re icy, they might have been a mechanism to deliver water back to the Earth.

SS:Correct me if I’m wrong: the life-giving water that we have now on Earth, isn’t the water that’s discovered on comets?

MT: Some of it is. This was the thing that we were investigating, particularly for the comet that we’re at - we have observation of other comets, similar comets, that have a similar kind of water that we find on Earth; but the comet we’re at, Churyumov-Gerasimenko, actually water is very different to Earth, so that’s interesting scientifically, to say that means there are  all these different possible sources of water. The main source that we look at now are asteroids. We  think asteroids are the thing that really delivered water. Comets are still in the mix, they are still there, and they’re also important because they contain the building blocks of life. There’s material on there, called Nitrogen-Oxygen that builds bigger molecules. We’ve seen observations of molecules that form DNA, proteins. That’s why we look at comets, for that connection. They may not have delivered all the water, but they may have been part of that process and could have delivered things, material that could then go on to form life.

SS:There are claims, also, that there are something resembling primordial soup that was discovered on a Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet, right?

MT: It’s the material that goes on to do that. So, it’s not actual life, we have to be clear. We don’t find life on the comet, we find things that could go on - as you say, the primordial material that can form life, eventually.

SS:But is that a proof enough that comets could have formed life on Earth?

MT: Ultimately, if we look at what the general ingredients, primordial ingredients were for the whole solar system, then look at why is that only the Earth is like it is, why is Mars not like that, why is Venus kind of like Earth, but didn’t form properly? And then you take as well, and then you look at other solar systems  - we see the building blocks of life from within the comets, that would’ve been prevalent throughout the whole Solar system. So, why is it that Earth had become special, why Earth managed to retain life, why did Earth have life begin? What stimulated that? Is it just because we’re were in the right place in the right time? That’s what we look at, that’s what we study asteroids and comets, to see what was there in the beginning. It’s kind of like if you’re baking a cake, you know what the ingredients are - if everyone uses the same ingredients, you should have the same cake; but I know, when I do baking, I don’t always get the cake at the end that I want. It’s the same thing with the different planets. They had different evolutionary tracks that made them are what they are like now. But what is special about Earth?

SS:Aside from pure fact of knowledge, why do we need to know how the Solar system was formed? How does it help us today, here, on Earth?

MT: For me, it’s fundamental human trait - to explore. So for me, that’s what special about Rosetta. It’s an exploration, it’s going somewhere that we’ve never been before. Okay, you say it’s a big mountain, it’s a big black, dark thing think that’s 4 kilometers across, but this is a completely alien landscape, this is a very strange environment. The gravity is very, very small. If you can jump this far on Earth, you come back again. If you did that while you’re standing on the surface of the comet, you can never come back again. It’s that weird environment, it hardly has any gravity. Just from that perception - how does this thing exist, why is it like it is? And, just going there, going out there and doing things, going out and investigating, building spacecraft, working together scientifically to do this, to get the engineering capability to do this over the years - it’s something, I think, that we all should be doing. It’s this concept of exploration, trying to find out answers to bigger questions - and that’s what Rosetta is to me.

SS:How is your Rosetta doing right now? What is it doing? Is it speeding through space, passing some flying comets?

MT: It’s staying next to the comet. This is the key thing with Rosetta - it stays next to Churyumov-Gerasimenko through over a year. It’s been there since August last year, and it stays there, as close as we can get to the comet.

SS:Do you want to land it on it?

MT:  Eventually, this will be what we will do. We'll end the mission by putting Rosetta on the comet. The point being, we're trying to see how this comet works, how it changes from a rather inert object, when it's far away from the Sun, you can't see it, but when it gets close to the Sun, the ice that you're referring to, it changes into gas and brings up a lot of dust, and we see this... Well, you can't see it very well on this particular comet, but it will bring this massive tail in outer atmosphere that will stretch  hundreds of thousands of kilometers. So we have that massive entity that we're investigating, we will see how that works, how that activity starts and how it stops, by following it around the Sun, which we're doing now. We're now moving away from the Sun, and we see that drop down.

SS:For the little time that's left for that mission, basically landing it on a comet would be your final goal - or what else?

MT: There are a number of goals, but I think that the point that we're trying to drive towards now is to get as close to the comet as possible, because the closer you are, the more material you can sample. That's what we need to do.

SS:If I were you, I would be just hoping that some alien forms of life would hijack my Rosetta and take me to some far away planet, unknown place...

MT: It would be quite a shock, I would say, for me, personally, if there was anything alien up there.

SS:You think we're alone out there?

MT: I hope we are not, but that's part and parcel of what we're investigating. It's something that we're looking out into the stars to see if there are other stars like ours, like the Sun; part of our investigation with Rosetta into the comet is to see what is the Solar system made of, how is the Solar system formed. And then, when we look at a star that looks a bit similar to the Sun, we can say: "Well, it's very similar to our Sun, what are the other conditions around that star that may be the same as we had, and ultimately, we're trying to search for another Solar system like ours. And then, say, is there a planet near the location of our planet? Is there another Earth?

SS:What are the pros and cons in your opinion?

MT: In terms of finding extraterrestrial life? Well... again, it comes down, it's a philosophical aspect: you asked the question, are we alone...

SS: But that’s what everyone wants to know...

MT: I mean, the problem in some sense is, if we do find out, it's gonna be a star system that's light years away, it takes light years to get here from that star system. There's nothing we can do about it, we couldn't send a Rosetta there, it would take hundreds of years, thousands, hundreds of thousands of years to get to that planet. The light takes that long. So, it becomes, it's more of a philosophical thing now, and I think, for me, what would be the impact if on Earth we suddenly realized there's something else out there, there another intelligent life somewhere else - I'm not sure how people would cope with that.

SS:You know, there’s NASA engineer Masahiro Ono, he actually proposed something that's called "comet hitchhiking" that would eventually speed up the space travel - do you believe in that? Do you believe that you could take your craft and latch as a spacecraft onto a comet?

MT: Conceptually, it's doable, it take a lot of... To me, it's a bit like standing by the road, by a highway, and you have a car coming past, and you try and hop in the car and it's gonna take you off for free, trying to balance there; how do you get into an orbit to enable you to do that? The main problem with space travel is getting enough material in space to allow you to give you enough propulsion. So, this theory, this concept, you know, harnessing is a bit like lassoing a horse, you harpoon and you let the comet pull you for free. But, there is a lot of challenges to doing that, we have a lot of challenges enough to take 10 years to get to one comet and then put a lander on it, let alone fire harpoon at them and then draw in and ride it like a horse.

SS: Do you have any crazy space travel ideas yourself?

MT: No. To be honest with you, no, I am happy for community to think of these ideas. In terms of what we can do next - there are things we can do... actually, the comet idea is something that was quite compelling, but it is in the distant future. But doing things to do with asteroids, bringing these asteroids towards the Earth, this kind of thing, is something that we are all looking at agency level - how do we interact with these bodies, how can we use them, how can we use them logistically is an important point there.

SS:We're going to talk about asteroids in just a second, but I want to finish with Rosetta - because, as I understand, it operates on the solar energy?

MT: Yeah.

SS:Right, so how does it fly around when it is so far from the Sun?

MT: I mean, just because it's that far away, you know, it's a bit like an overcast day here, in Moscow. So, it's not that massively reduced, it's not like nighttime, it's still a reasonable amount of light. We knew it was going that far away and the operating period is such so that's why we got these massive solar panels, there are 32 meters, the spacecraft is 32 meters across, and most of that is solar panels, 15 meters each, so it's about 65 square meters of solar panels alone, so there's a lot of material to generate electricity with a weak environment like we have.

SS:But from what we read, it's operated from down here, from Earth. How do you give it commands?

MT: This is one of the challenges, it is so far away it takes light 15 minutes to get to the spacecraft, so we have to do everything pre-planned, it’s autonomous - this is one of the challenges with doing deep-space travel. You have to predict in a reasonable way what you think the spacecraft is going to do, so we have a set of commands at the spacecraft is autonomous, it needs to point, it needs to find stars in the sky to know where it is - that's its GPS, and that's one of the challenges with a comet because this material is flying around, and flying in the snow storm, you can't see the stars sometime, so that's a challenge. We move a little bit further away from the comet in these situations, because the spacecraft can't see where it's going. So that's a problem with this, that's you're not flying by joystick, it’s the same with Mars you have to wait for signal to come back every so often.

SS:So are there any resources on comets?

MT: Well, certainly, water is one of biggest resources. The problem with comets...we talked about this harpooning, they're travelling very fast, they're traveling at 40 km/s. Asteroids are more viable option to go to, because they're more inert in terms of amount of activity they're throwing off and they're more stable, they're not so fast, so they're easier to go and trap or land on, compared to a comet that's really coming in quickly. So, yes, there's material on board of comet, it's predominantly ice, but there's lots of material there; water is something you can distill into hydrogen - it's fuel, it's what you need in space. So, there's a viable... you know, there are something you would want logistically when you're in space, but there are difficult animal to trap because they're travelling so fast. We know that asteroids have similar material, not as much, different balances, different amounts of material, but they're a bit easier to get to. I think that's where we're going towards in terms of looking at the logistics of going to bodies, to look at what materials are onboard.

SS:That's why I ask about resources, because there's a lot of talk about harnessing asteroids for resources. I've spoken to some space entrepreneurs and they're very eager and they believe that industrializing space is a thing of a future, and not of a far away future. What do you think, is this a possibility, or it is never going be profitable?

MT: Well, this is a thing, you see - for me, I work for Space Agency, we don't talk about profit. I am a scientist, so I am interested in a scientific point of view. But it's clear that one of the limitations we have for space travel is getting material in space. So, lifting 1 kilo of material costs million euros, just to put it in space. If you already have that material in space, it's going to be cheaper, so it's this trade-off, financially, to say, if we can go and get an asteroid, it's like having a gas station in space already, so you don't have to lift that material up, if it's got silicate raw  material that you build spacecraft with, then you don't have to launch that off the Earth. But now, the case is, what  is more financially viable, you know - it is still, probably, more expensive to go to an asteroid, investigating ways of bringing in an asteroid close to Earth, cheaper way is to go to an asteroid to mine them.

SS: Some of them unexpectedly come to us, for instance we know that there are asteroids, like, size of cities flying around us, right? And the latest one for us was in Chelyabinsk where some of its pieces caused quite a stir...

MT: Yes. A benefit of having cameras on your dashboard, I think.

SS:I just wonder, are space scientists always able to see everything that flies around us?

MT: Yeah. We can monitor and we can see how we can deflect them, that's another thing, another technology. So, if we do have something Armageddon-style and Bruce Willis doesn't want to help us, then we have to have a way of diverting them or destroying them.

SS:The reason why I am asking is that I want to know what are the chances of something actually hitting us? And if it does, are we prepared?

MT: Ultimately, something will hit us at some point - it has to, statistically it has to.

SS:What do you mean?

MT: Well, comets, we go back to comets - they were bombarding the Solar system millions of years ago, but we benefited from the fact that Jupiter's there - and it is so big, it attracts comets, it's like a magnet to comets because of its gravity, so it kinda sweeps up some of the comets. Ultimately, there's a lot of debris flying around, and we might have an odd thing when it come towards us.

SS:So you think it's just a question of time.

MT: Yeah, according to statistics, it has to be something coming in.

SS:Are we prepared, can we handle it?

MT: The thing is, statistically, I believe - and I am not an expert in this field - it's very far away in the future. It's highly unlikely kind of statistics. So, it's not something that will happen in the next 10 years - but then, statistics, you don't know, it's just a statistical chance, and you only know from what you can see. But the key thing being, part of investigating asteroids and their orbits and where they interact with our bodies, that we send out - you can, in principle, if you detect something early enough, you can just stick a very small spacecraft to the side of it and set a jet off - and it will deflect it.

SS:What if you don't and what if it hits us - are we ready for that, are we prepared, or we're just going to be blown up?

MT: It's again, like "Armageddon". We could do something. The sooner you know... if something hits the sky now - then no, there's not much you can do apart from say "bye-bye"; but then, it depends on the size of the object. One has to remember that space is big and that it is highly unlikely that this would occur - but there's a statistical chance that it can occur. We are in an orbit that is such that we don't have that thing happening very often, as I said, because we have the larger planets outside that protect us, because they draw in these bodies because they have such a big gravity. So, they clear the path. But, there's a chance that something could happen like that.

SS: What do you think of the Mars One mission? That mission actually aims to establish human settlement on Mars by 2025 - do you think that's possible? I mean, I don't know why would you want to live on Mars out of all places.

MT: Personally, that's something I’m not very interested in, because I leave that to other people who are more dramatic or a lot more heroic, should I say.

SS:But do you think it makes sense? Do you think it's useless?

MT: I think we have to go beyond the Earth. You know, what is it..."The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but you have to leave the cradle." This is something that was said many years ago, in this country, I believe. Again, it goes back to the adventure and exploration, it's something that humankind has to do. Whether Mars One is the way to do it - I'm not sure, I'm not one to comment, I think 2025 is quite a quick turnaround in terms of being able to do something. I think, in the way that we're doing things from an exploration perspective, it will take a little bit longer. It will take time.

SS:You know, Russians are planning on a mission a little closer to Earth: they want to colonize the Moon. Why hasn't anyone thought of that before?

MT: I think people have, it's just... it's whether you have - and this is a key thing with collaboration and having a “want” to do something. There's a collaboration between Russian and ESA to go to Mars again, so we are collaborating to go and investigate again and start that exploration. The Moon, that's something else to look at, I wouldn't say no, wouldn't say yes - it's more to do with the capability from a financial perspective and a political perspective. Who wants to go there? I know that Director General from the ESA has now indicated that he is keen on going back to the Moon as well - so, I think, what would be good is if all of the agencies collaborated together to do something for a common goal. That would be the best way to do everything.

SS:Would you fly yourself?

MT: No.

SS:Why not?

MT: I went through a procedure around...well, what procedure. I went through consideration of this just before I was 40 or so, I had a call from the ESA - and I thought, "Well, I'm young enough, should I do it?" and in the end I thought - no. It's not something that interests me. Talking to some of my colleagues, I thought, you know, ‘maybe you've got the right stuff" but I found out you have to have a particular medical carried out, which costs around 400 euros or something. And I thought: "I could get a new Playstation for that", I thought, "maybe I could get a computer console instead of getting my medical" and then talking to some other colleagues, they compared me as an astronaut to an episode of the Simpsons cartoon where Homer, Bart Simpson’s dad, goes to space, goes to the ISS, and he breaks an ant farm, and caused destruction. People said "you're a bit like Homer, so maybe you shouldn't be an astronaut" - so that kind of put me off after all of this.

SS:But, are you happy with the state of affairs, the way things look right now in space exploration? To me, it looks like ever since the landing on the Moon, there weren't any major breakthroughs. I mean, astronauts are commuting to ISS like regular job, like from New Jersey to New York or something.

MT: Oh, yeah, but it's not regular. I mean, we see these sudden Shuttle disasters... the thing is, anything in space is dangerous still. It's a high-risk game and that's why I have the ultimate respect for anyone that does want to stick themselves into the top of the rocket and go up to the ISS. It's not yet rudimentary to do this travel, and that's, in some ways, an issue in society, I think, because we've got the ISS and everyone thinks it's easy; it's not easy. Every time we go up there, it's very-very difficult, it's a very-very horrible environment to live in. That's why one of the reasons I was joking about going to the ISS and being like Homer Simpson. It's not something that I would want to do, but it's a necessary thing to do, to have a persistent space station in orbit. The next step, then, maybe it would be a lunar base, maybe then you can go further. But we have to do these steps, and I wouldn't say... since the Moon landing we've got significant advances in space satellites and technology and science. We've got a much better understanding of how to do things in space. So, maybe no human exploration, but we have a much better understanding of space in general, based on our investigations scientifically - which will then benefit us when we do start going beyond the 400 miles above the Earth, that we should be doing in the near or medium future. But I don't think that's going to happen really soon.

SS:So, if you were to explain to a person who has nothing to do with space and is not fascinated by space exploration - why should we be spending more of our resources to explore space? What would you tell them?

MT: From my personal experience, I have moved Rosetta and it inspires people; you can say: "All you did, for 10 years you flew to a comet and deployed a lander" - but something about that story stimulates people's interest, it drives interest, it motivates people to think: "Ah, maybe I should do science, maybe I should do engineering, maybe  I should do something that is exploration" - it's driving humanity forward. So, that's the way I look at it. Again, it's the whole thing of this exploration, it is something what's fundamentally in most of our hearts, maybe not in everyone - as I said, I don't want to be an astronaut, but I don't mind sending space probes out that I can interact with. It's that aspect, because if we don't do that, then we may as well have stayed in the cave and look to our navel.

SS:Matt, do you think we will ever reach out for the stars? This can be yes or no answer.

MT: Ultimately, that's what we will have to carry on doing. We'll be limited by physics and we'll see if we can overcome that.

SS:Thank you so much for this interview and good luck with Rosetta