The European Space Agency has found its lost Philae lander. After a rough, bouncing landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November 2014, the spacecraft was unable to deploy its solar arrays in a proper configuration to capture enough energy. The batteries died within a few days of landing.
While scientists have since made a few more cursory contacts with the dying spacecraft, Philae’s fate – was it stuck in a ditch or pushed against a rock face? — remained largely a mystery.
Until now. The high-resolution camera aboard the comet-orbiting Rosetta spacecraft — which has remained near the comet since Philae’s launch two years ago — flew within 1.7 miles (2.7 km) of the comet’s surface on Sept. 2. comet and discovered the missing lander. At such a distance from the comet, the resolution of the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera is about 5 cm/pixel, high enough to reveal Philae’s distinctive 1 m body and two of its three legs.
“This remarkable discovery comes at the end of a long, arduous search,” said Patrick Martin, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission manager. “We started to think that Philae would be lost forever. It is unbelievable that we captured this at the last hour.”
Indeed, Rosetta will also go dark soon. Because Rosetta’s solar arrays can’t collect enough power to guarantee the spacecraft’s heating elements keep it warm enough for survival, Rosetta will follow its Philae lander to the comet’s surface. Scientists plan to collect data all the way down.
List image by ESA/Rosetta