It’s been a white-knuckle ride for scientists at the European Space Agency ever since the Philae lander separated from its mothership, Rosetta, on November 12. After a dodgy landing left the probe without sufficient sunlight to charge up its solar-powered instruments, the robot quickly fell into idle mode and has been dormant ever since.
But the game’s not over yet, and scientists now have another reason to be anxiously biting their nails. Rosetta has just taken a series of images of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko which could reveal, within the next day or two, whether the probe can access enough sunlight to open its sleepy eyes again next year.
Philae’s bumpy landing came after its anchoring harpoons failed to deploy as it made contact with the surface. Because gravity is very weak on 67P, the robot rebounded, twice, and took two hours to finally settle. While this much is known, details of Philae’s resting spot have been much less clear, which makes predicting its future difficult. Images taken by the lander indicated that it was wedged somewhere along the edge of a crater which was blocking the sun’s rays from reaching it.
The Rosetta team made 3D models of the robot’s surroundings based on these images, which suggest that the probe is only basking in 4.5 hours of sunlight a day. According to Jean-Pierre Bibring, Philae’s lead scientist, this is enough to keep it warm and run its boot-up sequence, but not enough to conduct experiments. However, summer is fast approaching, and depending on the lander’s precise location, it could soon start to receive enough sunlight to fire up its instruments.
“Pessimistically, it will be after Easter; [optimistically], it will be much prior to that,” Bibring said at a news conference. “It all depends on how the sun will go over the horizon, the local horizon.”
ESA scientists have found it a little odd, to say the least, that they haven’t yet been able to pinpoint Philae’s landing spot. Rosetta’s camera scoured 67P on November 24 and December 6, covering an area measuring 350 meters by 50 meters along the rim of the crater Philae is thought to be resting in.
Unfortunately, the whole region was in shadow during both photo shoots, so they couldn’t tell if a suspect glint was the lander or not. But the camera has just spent three days spying on the same region and the area surrounding it while it was illuminated, and the results could be ready for examination any time from now. “It’s a bit like waiting for Christmas presents,” said Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor.
While Philae’s unplanned parking might have caused a lot of heartache for scientists so far, if the probe does wake up, it may turn out to have been a blessing rather than a curse. That’s because it has access to numerous surfaces that would have been out of reach had the robot landed on a flat surface. Furthermore, scientists think they could hold a wealth of information.
“The material that we have ahead of us is certainly fantastic,” Bibring told Space.com. “We see the building blocks we are desperately looking for—icy material loaded with organics.”