Trying to learn about the history of our solar system is like detective work on a literally cosmic scale. Considering how that history spans billions of years, all we can do is guess based on the clues left behind by other space objects. Comets have long been considered to be the archivists of our solar system, formed and gathering materials as the time of the solar system’s birth. So when scientists find the unexpected surprise of oxygen on Comet 67P, their hearts all go aflutter.
Oxygen is special in more ways than one. It is commonly thought of as an essential element in supporting organic life and has sometimes been used as an indicator of past or future life. Here, it has a different significance. Oxygen is highly reactive, meaning that easily mixes with other elements it comes in contact with. And yet thanks to the observations of European Space Agency’s probe, scientists were able to find pristine traces of oxygen that have survived billions of years.
This finding is potentially universe-changing, so to speak. It challenges accepted models of how our solar system was formed. It is commonly held that it was born out of chaos, almost like creation myths, with collisions here and there, causing chemical and physical reactions that would form planets and set the stage for supporting life. Discovering oxygen that has lasted in its pristine state for that long would imply that the process would have actually been more calm and gradual, more peaceful.
That said, some scientist do advise a bit of caution not to jump to conclusions. It might be too early to say for certain how this discovery modifies the entire picture. It is definitely certain that finding oxygen on comets might actually be more common rather than comet 67P being a rare exception. And although comets are also believed to have helped deposit the needed elements and materials to jumpstart life on earth, this particular finding doesn’t exactly hold better clues as to the origin of life on Earth or of the possibility of life elsewhere.