The Rosetta mission was a resounding success, orbiting and then landing on Comet 67P, the mission ended on a sad note with the unexpected quiet of the lander Philae.  Now, scientists think they can wake Philae back up.

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Philae most likely bounced after making first contact with the comet and slowly tumbled to a stop, finally resting in a deeply shadowed area, providing dramatic images of a huge cliff face.  After using its battery power, the lander powered off after a few days, without sunlight to recharge it.

Philae Map
A rough idea of where Philae might be…

As the comet moves through space, it is slowly receiving more intense sunlight, raising the chance of waking the lander.  In a twist of irony, had Philae landed in its initial targeted spot, the increase in heat from the sun would have overwhelmed the lander’s cooling system and rendered the lander inoperable.  The unexpectedly sheltered location offers a second chance.

The lander wasn’t destroyed, more like delayed.

Philae was designed to operate off of 6.5 hours of sunlight. at its current place in space, Philae only receives about 1.4 hours of sunlight  – but the intensity of light is increasing.

Philae’s expected locations, as seen from Rosetta
Philae’s expected locations, as seen from Rosetta

The plan is to try to find Philae by using Rosetta: the orbiter will pass approximately 6 kilometers above the comet’s surface on Valentine’s Day. Rosetta will fly over the first touchdown point, but it’s not clear if it can image the area where the ESA thinks Philae is. The primary goal of the Rosetta approach is to capture shadow free images of the surface and sample the surface spectra.

[…“the location of Philae is not required to be able to operate it, and neither does it need to be awake for us to find it.”..]

– ESA’s mission manager Fred Jansen

If the lander was able to survive months of subzero temperatures, the first chance to wake it will be in march.  That means it could power up its transmitter by May or June: Philae requires almost 17W of power to wake and talk to Rosetta.

That means the lander could be fully powered and performing operations by August. The Team is currently debating which instrument package should be powered and used first.  If Philae can be awakened, it’ll be a huge success for the ESA, after an already high-profile successful orbit and landing.  While Philae orbited for a shorter span of time than everyone hoped, the lander managed to complete it primary data gathering mission.

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