After its hotly anticipated and dramatic landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the Philae lander captured the world’s attention. Landing a robot the size of a washing machine on a lump of rock traveling 135,000 kilometers per hour (84,000 mph) more than 482 million kilometers (300 million miles) away is probably one of humankind’s greatest achievements so far.
But disaster struck when it landed at a funny angle and in half shade, and went into hibernation. Jump seven months down the line to June 14 and – to all the team’s joy and elation – the little robot perked up again and phoned home, thanks to some sunlight hitting its solar panels. During that window of life, the lander sent back a package of data to be studied. But it then fell silent. Today, NASA announced that yesterday they were able to communicate with it again, even if only for 12 minutes before the connection was lost once more.
“This sign of life from Philae proves to us that at least one of the lander’s communication units remains operational and receives our commands,” said Koen Geurts, a member of the lander control team at the German Aerospace Center. “We never gave up on Philae and remained optimistic.”
The scientists have been a little flummoxed by the sporadic callings of Philae. The lander can’t communicate directly with Earth, but instead has to be relayed through the Rosetta satellite orbiting the comet. This hasn’t changed its trajectory of orbit, and so has left the team more than a little confused. Not that they’re too concerned – the fact that it’s sending anything back at all is excellent news.
For those brief 12 minutes of communication, the researchers managed to turn on the COmet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radiowave Transmission (CONSERT) instrument, which was able to send back the measurement data it has so far collected. This data is currently being evaluated.
“We can already see that the CONSERT instrument was successfully activated by the command we sent on 9 July,” explained Geurts. Though he added: “We do not yet have an explanation for why the lander has communicated now, but not over the past few days.”