“The spacecraft which made a spectacular landing on a comet last year has discovered a rich array of carbon compounds.
One leading scientist has even described the chemicals as “a frozen primordial soup”.
This supports the theory that comets may have seeded the early Earth with the ingredients for life.
The findings came after the lander, known as Philae, touched down on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko 67P in November.
It was dropped by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta “mothership” in the climactic stage of a ten-year mission.
Results from the lander’s seven instruments are published in a special collection of papers in the journal Science.
One team running a device called COSAC found no fewer than 16 organic compounds, four of which had not been known to exist on comets before.
Prof Ian Wright of the Open University, who leads another instrument, Ptolemy, said the results were “really interesting”.
“I see this cometary material that we’re analysing as frozen primordial soup. It’s the kind of stuff that if you had it, and warmed it up somehow, and put it in the right environment, with the right conditions, you may eventually get life forming out of it.
“What we may be looking at here is our abiological ancestral material – this is stuff that went into the mix to produce life.
“In many ways it’s quite a humbling thing to be working on, because this is life before life happened.””