The European Space Agency made history in the early morning hours of November 12 when the Philae lander from the Rosetta spacecraft became the first man-made object to make a soft landing on the body of a comet. While Philae initially landed on the target landing site, the harpoons meant to secure it to the surface failed, and it bounced twice before coming to rest (albeit tilted slightly) on the shady edge of a cliff.
This location was problematic, as it meant that Philae would not receive enough sunlight to recharge its solar panels. After about 60 hours of transmitting data about Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Philae’s battery ran out and the probe went to sleep. There had initially been some optimism that the probe might wake back up as the 67P/C-G gets closer to the sun next summer, but there’s just one problem: nobody knows where the heck it is.
Scientists have been analyzing the images returned from Philae in order to get an idea of where it came to rest, but the pictures are more ambiguous than the team would like. The Rosetta spacecraft has been taking images of the comet’s surface, trying to no avail to locate the lander it carried through space for over a decade. However, Rosetta is currently conducting experiments much further away from the comet than it was when Philae was launched, and those experiments aren’t going to be compromised just so the orbiter can get a closer look. Rosetta has imaged the area believed to be the resting place of Philae multiple times, but it hasn’t turned up any evidence of the probe quite yet.
Though the comet doesn’t have a great deal of gravity to keep the lander affixed to the surface, the researchers have not stated that Philae may have fallen off. On the contrary, BBC reports that the scientists feel ‘confident’ that the missing lander will likely turn up sooner or later.
Though Philae’s life wasn’t as long as the ESA crew may have wanted, it returned a great deal of data about the comet’s composition that scientists are still sifting through. It was revealed that there was approximately 20 centimeters of soft dust on the surface of the comet, covering a hard interior.
One of the most amazing announcements (so far) that has come from Philae’s data is the discovery of organic molecules on the comet. Comets have long been hypothesized to have brought the earliest components for life to Earth, so this is fairly exciting. Although, all that is known so far is that the molecules contain carbon, and no other components have been released yet. It still can’t be said for sure if organic molecules from comets played a role in the evolution of life, but even if not, it was an incredible discovery to make during Philae’s short window of data collection.
[Hat tip: BBC]