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Scientists Are Trying to Get in Touch With Philae One Last Time

As Comet 67P hurtles further and further away, it’s taking the ‘little lander that could’ along with it

An artist's impression of Philae's landing on Comet 67P. Philae is the small craft beneath the Rosetta orbiter. It detached from Rosetta and landed on the comet on November 12, 2014. Now it may be out of contact forever. (ESA–C. Carreau/ATG medialab)
smithsonian.com

It’s been a long time since scientists from the European Space Agency have seen Philae in person—the craft took off in 2004 with a destination over 4 billion miles away. Since they sent the washing machine-sized craft on its merry way, the lander has run into its fair share of hiccups and difficulties.

But until six months ago, it was in contact with its creators. Now, the agency is staging a last-ditch effort to contact Philae as it hurtles further off into deep space.

The AFP reports that one of the two radio transmitters on the craft have failed, along with one of its two receivers. They plan to make multiple attempts to reestablish contact during a brief window of opportunity before the temperature surrounding Philae drops to 60 degrees below zero and the craft officially becomes unable to operate.

Philae is the lander module of the Rosetta spacecraft, which was the first to orbit a comet. On November 12, 2014, Philae detached from Rosetta and hitched a ride on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Instead of securing itself to the comet as planned, it bounced. After settling on the surface, the lander only had power to perform 80 percent of its planned analysis.

Since Philae is solar-powered, it relies on light from the sun to function. As it zooms further and further away from the star, it’s less and less likely to operate. According to the AFP, scientists also think it’s unlikely their commands, which are aimed at helping the craft align itself better with the scant light of the sun, will ever reach the craft.

“Things are getting critical for Philae,” the German Aerospace Center writes in a recent blog on the lander’s status. Stephan Ulamec, who manages the lander, says that the lander’s “silence does not bode well.” The entry notes that the team experienced a false alarm on December 22, when the receiver on Rosetta was triggered. But it wasn’t Philae.

As 67P hurtles off into deep space, Philae has to stay along for the ride. The little craft hasn’t had a particularly romantic journey, but it did get a chance to perform plenty of firsts. It obtained the first-ever images from the surface of a comet, measured organic compounds like acetone that were seen for the first time on a comet, and, according to the ESA, “performed magnificently under tough conditions.”

Not bad for what will soon become a hunk of space junk.

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