Rosetta Locates Grave of Long-Lost Lander on Comet 67P Surface

Rosetta spacecraft orbiting Comet 67P

European Space Agency researchers sifted through Rosetta probe’s imagery and found what may be Philae lander’s place of eternal rest on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s surface. The space agency said in a recent statement that Philae’s location was “as clear as day.”

The finding comes as a great surprise since the lander went missing more than a year ago. On Nov. 12, 2014, the Philae lander made history. On that day, humanity had the first successful attempt of placing a spacecraft on the surface of a moving comet.

However, because the landing was rather bumpy, its mothership, Rosetta, lost connection with the probe 60 hours later. Scientists explained back then that the Philae went silent because its solar batteries ran down. Plus, the robotic probe landed on a dimly-it portion of comet 67, which prevented solar batteries from recharging.

As the icy dirt-ball continued to rush towards the sun, Philae came back to life but for brief moments. The last time Rosetta established communications with it was on July 9, 2015. Since then, there has been no news on the lander or its final resting place.

Philae’s Grave

But this week, ESA announced it has finally located the grave of the long-lost lander. Rosetta has recently taken pictures of the comet from 3,280 feet and accidentally located Philae.

The images reached our planet late on Sunday night, and researchers are still analyzing them. Reportedly, Rosetta used its Osiris camera to snap the high-resolution photos.

The imagery shows the tiny lander wedged against a large outcrop on 67P’s surface. ESA researchers said they identified the tiny robot by looking at its unmistakable feet.

The team noted that Rosetta had previously whizzed over this region, dubbed Abydos, but failed to locate Philae. On those past occasions, researchers had reported “candidate detections,” but they had no convincing evidence.

Mission investigators explained that this time, it is different. Since seasons on comet 67P have changed, the location of the lander receives more light now. Additionally, Rosetta took the photos from a closer distance than it did before.

The ESA team is over-thrilled with the discovery since they were about to crash-land the orbiter into the comet’s surface. Rosetta is expected to end its mission in a few weeks.

Importance of the Discovery

As of now, ESA has no plan to revive Philae since some of its hardware has been severely damaged in the touchdown. But because it now knows where it is located, its researchers can make a better sense of the images and scientific data the 40-inch-wide metallic box managed to beam back during those 60 hours of operation.

Prof Mark McCaughrean, one of the space agency’s science advisors, noted that mission team members now finally have a “context” to the lander’s on-site scientific measurements. Moreover, finding Philae is also important from another perspective. Millions of space enthusiasts now have some kind of “emotional closure” to Rosetta and Philae’s journey they have so closely followed.

McCaughrean also announced that the big adventure will come to an end on Sept. 30, when Rosetta will perform a deadly crash-landing onto the comet’s surface.

Image Source: Flickr