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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Philae Is Alive!

By Phil Plait

Fantastic news from the European Space Agency this morning: The Rosetta space probe lander Philae is awake!

Philae has been lost and incommunicado on the surface of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko since November, but Saturday at 20:28 UTC, a signal from the lander was received by the European Space Operation Centre.


It received 85 seconds worth of data from Philae, and very interestingly, it also received “historical” data, information that had been recorded by the lander earlier and saved onboard, meaning it was awake at least once before during the past few months.

Scientists are awaiting a second contact to see if they can get more data. According to the telemetry, it has plenty of power available (24 watts, if you’re curious) and will hopefully be able to resume operations. Obviously, the mood at the operations center is jubilant.

Here’s the backstory: On Nov. 12, 2014, the lander was released by Rosetta and fell toward the comet. It was designed to fire harpoons into the surface to anchor itself against the feeble gravity. There were two problems: The surface was much harder than expected (it was thought to be soft and fluffy, like snow, but was instead crunchier and tougher), and the harpoons misfired. The lander bounced, several times, and fell to rest in a spot that has yet to be found (though they’ve been looking and have possibly found the position of the lander, but it’s not yet confirmed).

It fell on its side and sent back some intriguing images of the surface, but it was partly in shadow. With its battery dying and time running out, engineers commanded it to rotate, and it did, by enough to get one of its solar panels into sunlight. It helped, but still after a time communication was lost, and the lander went into hibernation. The hope was that as the comet rotated, the lander would get enough power through its panel to be able to wake up.

And Saturday, it did!

I’m really thrilled about this. Rosetta is the first mission to ever orbit a comet, and Philae the first lander ever to touch down on one’s surface. 67P is a bizarre little world, and seeing it up close has been an incredible achievement for astronomers.

But this has also been a great adventure that has captivated a lot of the public, too. Back in November, watching and waiting for the lander to touch down, the bad news that came after, the valiant attempts to get back in touch with it and save it, and the sadness felt when Philae shut down were all shared by millions of people.

It’s very, very nice to be able to share some good news about it again. Once communication is re-established the work begins again. Its health will be checked out, more data will be sent about the comet, and hopefully they’ll be able to figure out just where it is on the surface too. That’ll help engineers figure out how best to deal with the lander’s orientation and continue the science mission.

Congrats to everyone on the team!

For more updates and current info, follow the ESA's Rosetta blog.

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