“Time is running out” for ESA’s Philae comet lander

Scientists working with the ESA’s Rosetta mission are scrambling to regain contact with the Philae comet lander, which has been silent since last July.

Scientists working with the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission have just made a last-ditch effort to save the Philae space probe. According to a report from Phys.org, the comet lander has been silent since July, and scientists are struggling to communicate with it once again.

The Philae probe crashed down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November of 2014, and has given astronomers invaluable insights into the phycis and chemistry of the massive space rock orbiting the sun. The probe hasn’t communicated with ESA scientists for roughly six months, however, and time is running out to get the probe back in working order. Engineers at the German Aerospace Centre in Darmstadt say the odds of reestablishing contact are growing slimmer each day as the comet follows its elliptical orbital path away from the sun.

“The last clear sign of life was received from Philae on July 9, 2015. Since then it has remained silent,” wrote GSA representatives in a statement.

The robot, which is roughly the size of a refrigerator, could be reawakened by communications to its flywheel, which was first used to stabilize the probe as it landed. Technical project manager Koen Geurts hopes that successfully engaging the flywheel will “shake dust from its solar panels and better align it with the sun.”

The possibility remains, however, that any attempt to reach the probe will be futile. “It’s an admittedly desperate move. It is very unlikely that the robot will become functional again,” said Philippe Gaudon of the French National Space Agency.

Researchers believe they have roughly until the end of January to awaken the probe before their window of opportunity closes. The comet and the lander on its surface will then be roughly 300 million kilometers from the sun. At this point, the temperature would fall below negative 51 degrees Celsius, too cold for the components on Philae to operate.

The project to land Philae on comet 67P took ten years and nearly 6.5 billion kilometers of space travel. As it was released form its mothership Rosetta, Philae bounced multiple times across the rocky surface of the comet before settling at a strange angle under deep shade. In its precarious position, the probe only had 60 hours of data before it switched over to standby mode last November.

The Rosetta mission was launched in an attempt to find out more about the origins of life in the universe. Before it went on standby, the Philae lander discovered a number of organic molecules, four of which had never before been seen on a comet.

A press release from the European Space Agency regarding the current status of the Philae comet lander can be found here.

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