The mystery of what happened to a European probe sent to the surface of a comet was finally solved today after it was spotted stuck on its side in a dark crack.
Space scientists are thrilled to have found their washing machine-sized lander, less than a month before they end the 12-year-long Rosetta mission by gently crash-landing the mothership too on September 30.
Long-lost lander Philae successfully touched down on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November 2014 but then bounced twice after harpoons failed to fire to hold it to the crumbly surface. I reported on the drama of the landing for Sen, from mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.
Philae managed to send back data for three days before its batteries died, plus a photo of one of its landing feet. But it was stuck in shadow and unable to charge up using sunlight.
Intermittent contact was suddenly regained in June 2015, two months before the comet reached its closest point to the Sun and Philae managed to catch some sunlight. But scientists at the European Space Agency were still unable to pin down exactly where their probe had ended up on the comet.
The mystery was finally solved after the Rosetta mothership was sent flying less than 2.7 km above the comet on September 2. Previously, the gas and dust spewing from the comet around perihelion had made such a close approach too dangerous to attempt. Rosetta has made its own great discoveries including molecules important for life on the comet’s surface.
Rosetta’s high-resolution OSIRIS camera captured Philae in an image of the Abydos region of the comet that clearly shows its main body and two of its three legs. Its orientation, wedged into a crack in the comet’s surface, makes clear why it was so difficult for Philae to communicate with Rosetta.
The mission’s chief scientist, Matt Taylor, told Skymania yesterday: “It has been difficult to not say anything, tweet anything, since we got the pictures. Before, we had a good idea where Philae was, but not that unambigious “THERE IT IS!!!!” image.
“I didnt think we were going to get it, as the little bugger was in a good hiding place! but thanks to many people’s efforts, driven by Larry O’Rourke at ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre, near Madrid, we got it!
“Now we just have to sort out the descent for Rosetta, and . . . job done!”
He added in an ESA statement: “This wonderful news means that we now have the missing ‘ground-truth’ information needed to put Philae’s three days of science into proper context, now that we know where that ground actually is!”
Cecilia Tubiana of the OSIRIS camera team, was the first person to see the images after they were downloaded from Rosetta. She said in a statement: “With only a month left of the Rosetta mission, we are so happy to have finally imaged Philae, and to see it in such amazing detail.”
Patrick Martin, ESA’s Rosetta Mission Manager, commented: “This remarkable discovery comes at the end of a long, painstaking search. We were beginning to think that Philae would remain lost forever. It is incredible we have captured this at the final hour.”