Where is Philae? Despite all the science the Rosetta spacecraft is doing, the whereabouts of the Philae lander remains the biggest question for people following the mission.
The Philae lander is believed to have hit comet 67P’s surface four times before coming to a rest. Where it finally landed has been tough to figure out. Since the comet landed in a shadow, it was unable to recharge its batteries to continue working after its initial battery charge. Plus, the surrounding darkness has made it hard to find.
But, scientists are still hopeful they can find the little lander. The image below shows an example of an area ESA officials are looking in.
“We’re looking – by eye – for a set of three spots that correspond to the lander,” says OSIRIS principal investigator Holger Sierks.
“The problem is that sets of three spots are very common all over the comet nucleus; Hatmehit and the area around its rim where we’re looking is full of boulders and we have identified several sets of three spots.”
OSIRIS refers to the narrow-angle camera used by the Rosetta spacecraft.
When Philae Might Wake Up and It’s Biggest Obstacle
Philae’s original landing spot would have given the lander 6.5 hours of much-needed sunlight per 12.4 hour comet day. Plenty to recharge its batteries. In its current location, Philae gets just 1.3 hours of sunlight per day.
The original landing zone would have ended Philae’s mission around March, when temperatures at the original landing zone increased due to the direct sunlight. Now, scientists are hoping Philae wakes up around May.
“Now we need the extra solar illumination provided by the comet’s closer proximity to the Sun by that time in order to bring the lander back to life,” says DLR’s Lander Project Manager Stephan Ulamec.
All of this hinges on Philae overcoming one major obstacle. Prolonged low temperatures. Sitting in the comet’s shadow for this long could have damaged the lander’s electronics. Other issues for Philae will be getting enough power to tell the Rosetta spacecraft it is ‘awake.’ It needs 17 watts to re-power and send a signal.
Even if we’ve seen the last of Philae, it was still a monumental accomplishment for the European Space Agency (ESA). It marked the first time a spacecraft landed on a comet and conducted science. For a first attempt, it was a successful mission.
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