Scientists from the European Space Agency report that the comet lander Philae has stopped responding to signals and has fallen silent. Worries amount for a mission that already had a bumpy beginning.
The probe was launched alongside its parent spacecraft, Rosetta, more than 11 years ago. Its mission was to travel to the comet known as Churyumov–Gerasimenko and analyse its composing elements. Less than a year ago it reached is destination and left Rosetta in order to land on the comet, the first probe to ever do so.
Unfortunately, the landing did not go as expected and the probe bounced from its initial landing site to what is most likely the base of a nearby cliff. Since it is mainly powered by solar energy, the probe relied on its batteries for a while due to being entirely covered in the cliff’s shadow.
But the comet is currently headed for the sun and the star’s light eventually reached the lander’s solar panels this June, powering it back. It did manage to send plenty of data back home until the 9th of July when it suddenly went silent.
Something appears to have moved the probe once more, possible to an even darker region of the comet. The ground control team theorized that it may have been a strong gas eruption from within the comet.
Regardless of what it was, most of Philae’s instruments can no longer be accessed, including the drill the lander must use to achieve its main purpose: gathering solid samples to reveal a comet’s composition.
The European scientists have not given up yet. Rosetta has remained in orbit of the comet and it is being moved to different positions in order to maximize its chances of contacting Philae. There has been little success so far, though one of the lander’s transmitters still seem to be working.
Rosetta has difficulty maintaining a close orbit due to constant debris detaching from the comet as it approaches the sun and begins to slowly melt down. If all else fails, the spacecraft can move to a safer area and use its own systems to analyse the comet, albeit with less precision than the lander would have been able to.
The situation is worrying, but the little probe has proven its resilience in the past and the scientists have not yet given up on it.
The comet will not plunge into the Sun but pass extremely close to it on the 13 August. Hopefully Philae will give a sign by then.
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