BERLIN — Scientists say the Philae space probe has gathered data supporting the theory that comets can serve as cosmic laboratories in which some of the essential elements for life are assembled.

Philae, which is part of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, used two separate instruments to ‘sniff’ for molecules during its bumpy landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko last November.

In an article published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers said they spent months analyzing the data and concluded that 67P contains at least 16 organic compounds. Four of them, including acetone, hadn’t been detected on a comet before.

“Comets are loaded with all the raw materials like water, CO2, methane, ammonia, needed to assemble more complex organic molecules, perhaps sparked by UV-photons from the Sun or cosmic rays, or in the shock that occurs when a comet hits the surface of a planet like the young Earth,” said Mark McCaughrean, a senior scientific adviser at the European Space Agency.

It’s not yet known whether the complex molecules found in 67P were made in the early solar system and then incorporated into the comet or formed there later, he said. “Either way, it seems that comets are pretty good places to find the building blocks of molecules which later on could be used for life.”

McCaughrean, who wasn’t directly involved in the study, dismissed recent reports that evidence of life itself had been found on the comet. But he said the prebiotic compounds that were detected might be coaxed into even more complex molecules such as amino acids, including by a planetary impact.