The Resurrection of Philae

PhilaePhilae is dead. It died Friday night as its battery was drained. But here is hoping that it doesn’t rest in peace. And it is possible that it will not.

Last Thursday, I wrote, Mission to 67P in Crisis. That was when “the little lander that could”[1] found itself wedged at the bottom of a cliff on Comet 67P. In that location, it was only able to get sunlight for a bit more than 10% of the 67P day — not enough to operate without its battery.

Of course, the scientists did not mean for Philae to land there. When the lander first dropped onto the surface of 67P, it was in a big open area. But when it touched down, the harpoons didn’t activate. Even though the lander was only traveling at roughly one mile per hour (an incredibly slow walk), it bounced because on the surface of 67P, Philae weighs only as much as a piece of paper. So it bounced — a long way away. And then it bounced again. This is confirmed by the following image collage created from Rosetta images at different times:

Philae Bounce

We still don’t know where Philae finally stopped, but it is hoped that images from Rosetta will eventually reveal its current location. But wherever it is was not the plan. “For want of a harpoon, a lander was lost.” Or maybe not. According to Joseph Stromberg over at Vox, “Additionally, scientists say that as the comet gradually nears the sun next year, it’s possible the probe would be exposed to additional sunlight and wake back up, allowing for further investigations.” That would be very cool. Of course, at this point I’ve learned not to get my hopes up.

As it is, the mission was a success, even if it wasn’t able to do the one thing that I was most excited about: the search for organic molecules on 67P. In particular, it took temperature and density measurements and used radar to probe the comet’s interior. In total “the craft successfully used all ten of its scientific instruments and gathered all sorts of data about its environment.” And most of all, the mission is primarily Rosetta. Philae was only ever supposed to be about a fifth of the project. And Rosetta has worked flawlessly thus far.

I think my disappointment with this mission to 67P is that I have to wait for the hundreds of scientists to pore over the data and draw conclusions. When I was a kid, it was just exciting that we were going to the moon. And I’ll admit: seeing closeup pictures of 67P is impressive to me. But given all we stand to learn by studying this comet, I’m disappointed that we don’t know more right now. As I said, these missions tend to bring out the kid in a lot of us. And patience is not one of the defining characteristics of children.


[1] I came up with that phrase myself, “The little lander that could.” It seemed appropriate, although idiosyncratic and silly. But here is an article today from NASA Watch, The Little Comet Lander That Could. And there are lots more. It seems space exploration brings out the kid in a lot of us.

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