After concluding a stunning 57-hour mission, the Philae comet lander has gone dark as its solar-charged batteries power down. The batteries may recharge when the comet makes another pass towards the sun, but for now the lander remains silent. Philae landed near a shady cliff making the possibility of recharging unlikely.
Philae launched from Earth with the Rosetta satellite in 2004. The satellite and lander covered 6.5 billion miles to meet up with Comet 67P near Jupiter’s orbit. Last Wednesday, Philae made its landing on Comet 67P, making a dramatic and exciting mission a success. It took two bounces to complete a successful landing, although Philae’s solar panels were not positioned to receive as much sun exposure as planned, leading to the current power-down.
This is the first time a space organization successfully landed a probe on a comet. When it was apparent that the lander was not receiving the expected amount of sunlight, engineers sent a command to shift its position to maximize time to collect and send data. The adjustment raised Philae by four centimeters and rotated it by 35 percent.
Even with the Philae comet lander going dark, scientists are impressed with the probe and the data it collected. “Prior to falling silent, the lander was able to transmit all science data gathered during the First Science Sequence,” stated Stephan Ulamec, landing manager.”This machine performed magnificently under tough conditions and we can be fully proud of the incredible scientific success Philae has delivered.”
Professor Mark McCaughrean, senior scientific advisor to the European Space Agency, also spoke to the durability of the small washing machine-sized probe. “All the scientific instruments on board have done all the work they were supposed to do so we have huge amounts of data back on the ground now, which is very exciting.”
The probe collected the data by drilling 10 inches into Comet 67P’s surface and analyzing the samples. Bringing a sample into Philae for analysis was the core goal of its mission. It also took several pictures of its landing and of the comet’s surface.
There is no direct knowledge of the probe’s position on the comet, but scientists are using triangulation to find the precise spot. Knowing the landing location could help determine if the probe is accessible to sunlight and could possibly be fully recharged once again. Ulamec said that they still hope that at a later stage of the mission, perhaps when the comet comes nearer to the Sun, that there might be enough solar illumination to re-establish communication.
It is believed that comets are the earliest remnants of the creation of the solar system. Some comets are estimated to be around 4.6 billion years old and their core material of rock, minerals and ice can contain the earliest organic molecules. Examining the data from Comet 67P may reveal new information regarding the beginnings of the solar system. Even as the Philae Comet Lander goes dark, the Rosetta satellite will continue to observe the comet from space.
By: Jocelyn Mackie
Feature Photo by ESA-C. Carreau/ATG media lab – Flickr License
Main Photo by DLR German Aerospace Center – Flickr License