After Philae Lander’s Sleep Mission’s Future Unclear, But Exciting

Comet 67P Philae Lander

Over the weekend, the European Space Agency (ESA) received a long-overdue call from their missing Philae lander. The craft went silent on November 15th after bouncing around the comet’s surface and landing in a relatively peaceful spot. Now, Philae will get a chance to see the comet being blasted by the sun’s rays during a close pass and potentially keep studying the rock for years.

According to CNN, the comet Philae is riding, creatively named Comet 67P, will make its closest pass to the sun in mid-August – an event called perihelion. Thanks to a failure in the lander’s anchor devices and the comet’s low-gravity, the lander ended up bouncing into a relatively sheltered location.

Picture from Rosetta as Philae Lander departs

The original landing spot would have given the refrigerator-sized lander’s solar panels seven hours of sunlight, according to the Nature World News, but in its current location it only receives 1.5 hours every 12-hour day on the comet. But when it gets to perihelion, the lander is expected to get more power just in time for a bonus round of research.

System engineer Laurence O’Rourke told CNN that it was an exciting event for the Philae team.

“It’s incredible that we have a chance to get data from the surface of a comet approaching perihelion. We weren’t expecting that.”

When the comet gets closer to the sun, bits and pieces of the surface will be blasted away. That material makes up the comet’s tail, and the Philae lander will be in a good position to see it. The lander’s orbital mother ship, Rosetta, has already been taking pictures of the increasingly active comet for weeks.

Even with its hiccups, Philae has already accomplished a great deal, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The lander has already taken samples of the comet’s soil and analyzed it using radio waves. Not bad, considering Philae is in minus 35 degrees Celsius temperatures and running on 24 watts of power.

One of the most exciting discovery’s from the Rosetta mission was finding organic material on the comet’s surface. Now, the Philae lander is looking for samples for study.

Philae also holds the record for the first human-made device to successfully land on the surface of a comet.

Project scientist Matt Taylor explained to RT that the biggest promise for comet research is better understanding of the origins of the solar system.

“The key thing is these comets are windows into the past, they are the leftovers from the beginning of the solar system. So by studying them we get an idea of how the solar system formed, where it formed from and ultimately how we got to where we are today. It links to us directly. These things are full of water, full of material that was the building blocks of the entire solar system. We came from these bodies and its basically looking back at where we came from.”

The future of the mission is now unclear. O’Rourke explained that one proposal is to extend the mission until September next year, and then attempt to land the orbiting Rosetta ship on the comet’s surface. Then ride it until the comet comes close again in six years and can deliver data.

Whether the Philae lander and the Rosetta spacecraft can survive that long is a big unknown, but O’Rourke explained, “I would think the chances are very low.” The decision will be made in the next two weeks, until then enjoy an animated movie about the mission so far (below).

[Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta]