We're all buzzing over possible findings from Rosetta's Philae lander, but don't get too excited over the latest news.
You may have seen reports that Philae found organic molecules on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by sniffing the icy rock's atmosphere. Several outlets have reported this as major news, even though scientists with the European Space Agency have yet to specify which organic molecules the lander found.
Here's the thing: An organic molecule is anything carbon-based. It's true that organic molecules are the building blocks of life as we know it, but we need to know a lot more about which organic molecules the comet has (and whether they're left- or right-handed, to boot) to understand how comets may tie into the origin of life.
Although the term "organic molecule" may sound a heck of a lot like it has something to do with lifeforms, in chemistry "organic" means little more than "this molecule has one or more carbon atoms somewhere in it." While life as we know it must contain organic compounds, you can have lots of organic compounds without having life.
For example, gases like methane (a couple of hydrogen atoms clinging to a carbon atom) and methanol (essentially methane with an extra hydrogen and oxygen atom) are by definition organic molecules, but both can be produced in common chemical reactions that need have nothing to do with living organisms.
And there's more: The Rosetta orbiter actually detected organic molecules on the comet months ago. We already know that methane and methanol — which are organic, but not important in our search for Earth's origins — are present on the comet.
So while we can still hope to learn a ton about comets, the origin of life and the nature of the solar system from the interpretation of Rosetta's data, don't let hype make you jump the gun. We should be excited that Philae's instruments worked well enough to sniff these molecules out, but that's the only takeaway for now.