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Is It Time to Say Goodbye to the Philae Lander?

With every passing day, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is getting further and further away from the Sun, and as such, temperatures are falling on the comet’s surface.   (Image:  DLR German Aerospace Center via wikimedia /   CC BY 3.0)
With every passing day, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is getting further and further away from the Sun, and as such, temperatures are falling on the comet’s surface. (Image: DLR German Aerospace Center via wikimedia / CC BY 3.0)

It’s fast becoming time to farewell the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta’s lander, Philae. The small lander was the first of its kind to land on a comet for the ESA. Philae was the lander module of the Rosetta spacecraft, which was the first to orbit a comet (67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko).

On November 12, 2014, Philae detached from Rosetta with no problems, but instead of securing itself to the comet, it bounced. The unstable touchdown led to the lander coming to rest in the shade. This has prevented it from being able to fully charge its batteries. Then, days later the mission team lost contact.

Learn more about the Rosetta Mission from this video by DLR:

While Rosetta has continued to analyze the comet, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) has periodically tried to rouse the lander from its deep sleep. As comet 67P approached the Sun there was an increase in light, which allowed Philae to make contact in June and July, but has not been heard from ever since.

But, now the mission has reached a critical turning point, prompting the ESA to make a statement:

“With every passing day, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is getting further and further away from the Sun, and as such, temperatures are falling on the comet’s surface. Things are getting critical for Philae: conditions are predicted to be “lander-hostile” — too cold — by the end of January.”

On January 10 they sent a command via Rosetta, in an attempt to make Philae’s momentum wheel switch on. The team was hoping that the momentum wheel, which stabilized it during its landing, may have been able to shift the lander into a different position, or at the very least shake any dust off its solar panels.

Philae technical manager, Koen Geurts at DLR’s lander control center, explains:

“At best, the spacecraft might shake dust from its solar panels, and better align itself with the Sun.”

However, this attempt failed, DLR reported on its Twitter account:

Stephan Ulamec, Philae lander manager at DLR, said: “Time is running out, so we want to explore all possibilities.” It remains unclear as to what state Philae is in since it last sent data about its health in July, but the DLR team believes that one of the lander’s two transmitters and one of the two receivers have failed.

The second transmitter and receiver apparently no longer function smoothly either, according to ESA. There will be two attempts daily during this month, but by the end of January will be over 480 million miles from the Sun. At this distance the operating temperature would be less than -123°F (-51ºC), at which point the lander will no longer be able to turn on.

With hostile conditions and less sunlight everyday, it is not expected the lander will respond after January, however the Rosetta orbiter will be listening for Philae until the end of its mission, which is in September 2016.

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