European Space Agency Weighs Future of Philae

European Space Agency
After launching the world’s first man-made object to land on an orbiting comet, the European Space Agency’s comet lander, Philae, has lost battery power causing astronomers to weigh its future. Running on the energy of the sun, the batteries of the comet probe drained completely soon after midnight on Friday. Speaking from the European Space Operations Center, Stephan Ulamec congratulated the team of researchers working on the Rosetta mission and said that despite going silent, “the probe performed far better than expected.” He said the European Space Agency should be “fully proud of the incredible scientific success.”

Before its batteries died, the Philae was able to complete what was considered its primary mission. Researchers had programmed the probe to land on the comet and send back data and measurements, along with pictures of its environment. This data has been received and the team of scientists is preparing to begin analyzing it. Initial photos showed a dusty landscape with layered walls surrounding the probe.

Pablo Ferri, the European Space Agency’s mission chief, confirmed that the Philae was able to return this pertinent information, but he also mentioned that “we do not even know if it really succeeded.” The probe was supposed to drill a 10-inch hole into the comet and extract a sample for further analysis. Upon landing, the Philae bounced several times, causing it to land in a less than optimal position. Details are not yet available to confirm if the probe touched solid surface. The team of scientists working on the Rosetta mission will have to carefully analyze the data to determine if the lander collected any samples.

With a cost of nearly $1.6 billion, the Philae launched from Darmstadt, Germany and traveled 311 million miles from Earth. Due to its landing position, scientists are not quite sure where the probe is. They are using the information they collected to determine its location. Before the probe’s battery died, it was able to receive a signal instructing it to extend its solar panels. This was in an effort to escape the shadow it landed in and possibly recharge its batteries. Traveling near Mars, the comet is expected to be near enough to the Sun by August 2015. It needs six to seven hours of sunlight to fully charge its power source. Scientists at the European Space Agency are not sure if the Philae’s current position carries enough weight to recharge the batteries, and are worried about its future.

European Space Agency scientists believe the comet might be a “cosmic time capsule” that can reveal significant information on the origins of the earth and whether life actually began in space. Carl Sagan, the late astronomer, taught that all of life on Earth is the product of what he called “starstuff.” He believed that every element on Earth has its origin in an exploded star. Some theories hold that asteroids and comets bombarding the earth during its early stages carried the right combination of elements for life to thrive. Landing the Philae on the comet may confirm these theories for the European Space Agency and weigh heavily in the future of space exploration.

By Didi Anofienem

U-T SanDiego
Photo By: Michael Karrer – Flickr License

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