It’s a race against time for the European Space Agency’s Philae lander as scientists scramble to make the most of the spacecraft’s remaining battery. After a botched landing earlier this week, the goal is to collect as much data as possible before Philae goes dark, which could happen any minute now.
ESA officials are preparing to drill into the comet’s surface as soon as today in an effort to collect samples, which scientists are hoping will reveal secrets about how our solar system was formed. Philae was expected to hitch a ride on Comet 67P until sometime next year, but because the lander is currently in the shadow of a cliff, it won’t receive enough sunlight per day to fully charge and operate. Scientists originally picked out a prime slice of comet land that would have given Philae’s solar cells six to seven hours of sunlight per day, but the spacecraft’s landing didn’t go as planned, which is why it’s in the spot it’s in.
The worry now, however, is actually getting the drill to work. And even if it does, it may not be long enough to reach the comet’s surface. When Philae landed, it bounced off the surface twice when its thruster and harpoon systems failed, eventually falling onto its side. So not only is Philae stranded in the shadow of an immense cliffside, but it’s not upright, and there’s no way to get it back on its feet. Unlike something like Curiosity, which is currently exploring Mars, Philae has no way of navigating the surface on its own.
Scientists seem reserved about the drill’s chances of penetrating the comet’s surface, which means there’s a chance we may never learn about the comet’s icy origins. Because of the comet’s current orbit, mission controllers are out of contact with Philae, but they’re hopeful a connection can be made later tonight. There’s a possibility the battery will die before the ESA ever makes contact with Philae again.
It’s a horrible, lonely way to go after 10 long years of traveling through the dark expanse of space. ESA officials are still proud of Wednesday’s landmark achievement, however. Landing a probe on a comet doesn’t happen everyday.
“This is unique and will be unique forever,” said Andrea Accomazzo, ESA Rosetta flight director. “Let’s not forget this.”