Finding Philae: Scientists finally spy AWOL comet lander hiding in the shadows

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Rosetta’s lander Philae has been identified in OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images(Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team)

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An almost two-year-long cosmic search party has come to an end, with scientists at the European Space Agency spying their Philae comet lander wedged into a dark crack on the surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

After hitching a ride with the Rosetta space probe, the fridge-sized Philae was sent toward 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November 12, 2014 to become the first spacecraft to ever touch down on the surface of a comet. But harpoons designed to anchor Philae in place failed to fire, sending Philae bouncing across the surface, into the darkness and out of reach of the solar energy it needed to charge its batteries. A few sporadic signals aside, it has remained largely incommunicado since that date.

The ESA were able to pretty quickly determine the landing area using its CONSERT instrument (Comet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radiowave Transmission), which bounces radio waves between Philae and the orbiting Rosetta to study the comet's nucleus, placing the robot in a 350 x 30 m (1,150 x 85 ft) area. More inspections narrowed things down further, but visual confirmation has eluded them until now.

Today the team has laid eyes on the robot for the first time since it disappeared into the shadows. Just as the Rosetta orbiter's mission draws to a close, images snapped by its onboard OSIRIS narrow-angle camera around 2.7 km (1.6 mi) from the comet's surface show the lander nestled in among the jagged landscape. The team says this confirms the lander's orientation as the reason it was unable to sustain communications.

"This remarkable discovery comes at the end of a long, painstaking search," says Patrick Martin, ESA's Rosetta Mission Manager. "We were beginning to think that Philae would remain lost forever. It is incredible we have captured this at the final hour."

At the end of September, Rosetta will crash gently into the surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, bringing to an end a two-year stint orbiting the comet and collecting spooky images and enlightening data on its composition. The team will use this suicide mission as an opportunity to probe the comet from close-range, taking once-on-a-lifetime measurements and images as it descends on the surface.

"Now that the lander search is finished we feel ready for Rosetta's landing, and look forward to capturing even closer images of Rosetta's touchdown site," says Holger Sierks, principal investigator of the OSIRIS camera.

Source: ESA

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