It happened early on Wednesday morning: the European Space Agency (ESA) miraculously landed a spacecraft on a comet millions and millions of miles away from Earth. The accomplishment was a culmination of ten long years of dedicated work, and gave scientists a real opportunity to learn about the origins of our solar system. Unfortunately, scientists are already preparing for the mission to come to an abrupt end.
When Philae touched down yesterday, reports said the spacecraft had issues when it first touched down on Comet 67P; the thruster system didn’t work, and the harpoons didn’t fire as intended. Today, the ESA’s worst fears were confirmed: Philae actually bounced off the comet’s surface and ultimately ended up on its side—in the shadow of a cliff no less, where its solar panels will be unable to re-charge its battery.
As of now, Philae has about 64 hours of battery, so scientists are racing to gather as much data as possible. In its current position, Philae will only get about 1.5 hours of sun every 12 hours, which isn’t nearly enough to charge the battery consistently. Once the 64 hours is up, Philae will go dark. Scientists are trying to figure out ways to give the spacecraft a jolt to possibly get it upright, though prospects are looking grim. Unlike Curiosity, which is designed to explore, Philae is unable to move around on its own.
There’s a very small chance Philae could spring back to life once it gets closer to the sun, but scientists aren’t counting on that to happen. The news is unfortunate considering how long we’ve waiting for this moment to happen. Without being upright, Philae is unable to properly drill into the comet to collect samples.
It’s an unfitting end for a mission that has already accomplished so much. Unfortunately, the mysterious of our solar system will remain unsolved for the foreseeable future.