Rosetta lander sends comet postcard (but there’s a problem)

Chris Davies - Nov 13, 2014, 9:41am CST
Rosetta lander sends comet postcard (but there’s a problem)

As unusual views of space go, the surface of a comet rushing more than 80,000 mph through the universe from a tiny lander perched on its surface ranks pretty high on the list. That’s just what the European Space Agency’s Philae lander has beamed back to Earth – via the Rosetta spaceship it hitched a ride to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenkohas on – after successfully landing on the rocky surface yesterday. It’s the incredible culmination of a decade-long journey and a seven hour descent; problem is, while the view might be dramatic, it’s also threatening Philae’s long-term survival.

That’s because the lander relies on solar power to keep operating, but its current position isn’t conducive to its solar panels doing what they’re expected to.

“We are just in the shadow of a cliff,” Jean-Pierre Bibring, ESA mission scientist, said of the lander’s current location. It’s a spot with “permanent shadow” and, as such, Philae is reliant on battery power for the moment.

Those batteries have around 64 hours of charge in them, Bibring says. The ESA team is now exploring options for moving Philae to a better-lit location.

The landing, though a success overall, didn’t quite go according to plan. Philae was meant to use Comet 67/P’s own gravity to slowly come down, finally blasting the space rock with harpoons that could be used to winch itself in.

Drills in each of the three feet would then pin the lander to the surface, with a backup upward-facing rocket there just in case some extra effort was needed.

Instead, the harpoons have yet to get a grip, and one of the lander’s legs is pointing in the wrong direction, the ESA said. In fact, the space agency still isn’t entirely sure whereabouts on the comet their probe has come to rest.


Photos of the landing site shared from when Philae was just 40m away from the surface have been tweeted out, and the telemetry links are working as they should, the ESA says.

Of course, the big question is how effective the drilling apparatus – essential for figuring out the comet’s composition, and thus addressing questions about the earliest make-up of dust and debris when the solar system was young – will be without a firm grip on Comet 67/P’s surface.

The risk, the ESA points out, is that in trying to drill down, Philae could in fact simply push itself loose.


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