Successfully sniffing Comet 67P
31 Jul 2015



The Ptolemy laboratory on the Philae lander was co-designed and built by STFCs RAL Space in conjunction with the Open University.


​The surface of comet 67P
(Credit: ESA)​


31st July 2015

Preliminary scientific observations of Comet 67P show Philae’s UK-built onboard lab functioned successfully.

The Ptolemy laboratory on the Philae lander was co-designed and built by STFC’s space science department in conjunction with the Open University. Mission controllers and scientists working on the Rosetta mission, which carried Philae to the comet, now report about 80% of the first planned sequence of experiments was successfully completed in the 64 hours between separation from Rosetta and Philae’s final stop at landing site ‘Abydos’.

Highlights of the scientific analysis include:

  • Discovery of complex molecules that could be key building blocks of life
  • Measurements of the daily rise and fall of temperature
  • Assessment of surface properties and internal structure

The onboard lab sampled ambient gas above the comet surface and detected water vapour, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Smaller amounts of carbon-bearing organic compounds were also detected, such as formaldehyde.

Dr Chris Mutlow, Director of STFC-RAL Space said: “We’re delighted that the instrument we designed and built with the OU survived it’s lengthy mission and perilous landing and has continued to do the job it was designed for on Comet 67P.”

Ian Wright, Professor of Planetary Sciences at the Open University and Principal Investigator for the Ptolemy instrument, said: “Notwithstanding the bumpy landing, our instrument was in action (and working perfectly!) a few minutes after the initial touchdown, making analyses of compounds from the surface of the comet. We discovered a large signal from an organic polymer rich in carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. We believe that materials like this were probably brought to the surface of the primitive Earth and are likely to have been involved in processes leading to the origin of life.”

The full UKSA release (link opens in a new window) is available here.

Notes to Editors

Rosetta and the UK

With funding from the UK Space Agency and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), Rosetta is a mission with significant UK involvement from industry and science.

Philae’s instruments include a gas analyser, the Ptolemy instrument, which was designed and built by teams from the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council's RAL Space and the Open University. Ptolemy has an on-board oven for heating comet samples and collects data to analyse the relationship between water ice on comets and the Earth’s oceans. Ptolemy also studies the nature of organic material on the comet and uses this to investigate the relationship with similar materials from other Solar System bodies.

One of the main challenges for all the organisations that designed instruments for Rosetta has been to ensure the components remain intact for ten years, while the spacecraft makes its way to the comet, and then work perfectly when it gets there.


Partner Organisations 
  • UK Space Agency (link opens in a new window)
  • STFC
  • For more information please contact: RAL Space Enquiries