We may think hunting for a set of lost car keys is a tragic event, but consider the distressing circumstances of losing your pricey astro lander on a streaking outer-space comet. Back in November of 2014, the Rosetta spacecraft deployed its Philae lander, which plopped down onto the craggy crust of Comet 67P then promptly tipped over into the shadow of a cliff following its rough bounce landing. With zero sunlight to power its solar panels, Philae went silent after 57 hours It was briefly reborn in May of 2015 when Comet 67P cruised closer to the sun, but then returned to its cold, silent slumber. Since then, nothing of the lander has been seen or heard.
All that changed on Sept. 2 when Rosetta’s orbit passed close enough to the comet’s bumpy, jagged surface for its sensitive Osiris narrow-angle camera to snag a high-res image of the lander’s body and two of its three legs in a final resting place wedged into a lonely crack in the comet's rock base. The ESA's Rosetta team had narrowed the list of possible hiding places for Philae based on radio ranging data but until last week had not been able to pinpoint a spot or capture an image containing enough detail. This somber discovery hopefully brings some needed closure to the scientists and technicians working on this historic project.
Later this month, as Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko sails away from our warming star and in the direction of Jupiter's orbit, the solar energy required to juice Rosetta and its complement of instruments will wane. At that point, on Sept. 30, ESA mission planners will deliberately send the spacecraft into a controlled descent onto the comet's inhospitable surface. But on that last heroic gasp of exploration, Rosetta will be collecting and transmitting data back to Earth with a series of stunning close-up comet shots. Stay tuned!!