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Landing on a comet was the ‘easy’ part – but where’s that lander now?

Philae landed on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November last year, only to stop sending any data and become MIA, only a day after landing. Will the ESA team be able to locate their missing lander before the comet approaches the sun in July/August?

Small accidents can have large impacts on space missions. The European Space Agency landed Philae on the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet, which is moving in cycles of 6.6 years, back in November last year. It operated long enough to confirm with photos sent that it had landed, but after that something went wrong – now ESA can’t find their lander again.

Hopes are that as the comet gets closer to the sun, Philae will harvest enough power with its solar panels to start operating again. However, the risk is quite high that something else has gone completely wrong, leaving the lander in the dark without possibilities to ever start performing it’s unique in-situ analysis of a comet.

This is the first time in history where a comet is so closely monitored as it passes the point where it is closest to the sun, before beginning its long journey back to the most distant point. The ESA team expects the heat to be too immense for the lander to be able to function as soon as the comet is closing in on the sun, but if they do get it up and running again, it will take numerous different tests of the surface well before that.

One of the theories is that the spikes and harpoons that were meant to attach the lander to the comet, which has a super weak gravity, may have malfunctioned and cause the lander to bounce for a while, until settling in a still not identified location on the comet’s surface.

Analyzing comets gives great clues to how the solar system was formed. They are considered to be primordial rests from billions of years back in time, before the sun even had ignited and before any planets had started forming. Where planets have gone through chemical changes, comets have basically staid the same all this time.

The Rosetta spacecraft was sent out in 2004, with the primary purpose of orbiting and putting a lander on the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet.

The current area where ESA believes their lost lander is located is only about 16 x 160 meters, and as Rosetta may get even closer to the comet in it’s orbit, to capture more detailed images of the surface, the team hopes to be able to identify what’s gone wrong and – with some luck – be able to get the little lander back to work. Time is ticking though – in the middle of August the comet will be closest to the sun, and the conditions will most likely not allow for any scientific fiestas…

Image: European Space Agency