Europe’s revived comet lander phones home

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 19, 2015 1:54 PM

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - Europe’s Philae comet lander re-established radio contact with its orbiting mother ship on Friday, boosting scientists’ hopes of reviving a pioneering mission to study a relic of the solar system's formation, project managers said.

In November, Philae, a 62-pound (100-kg) spacecraft that hitched a ride with the Rosetta orbiter, touched down, bounced, then finally landed on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Philae ran through a preprogrammed, 64-hour series of experiments, then fell silent, unable to collect enough sunlight to recharge its batteries from its shadowed landing site beneath a cliff.

But with the comet streaming toward the sun and heating up, Philae emerged from hibernation last weekend with two radio transmissions to Rosetta. Additional attempts to contact Philae failed because Rosetta was tackling a previously determined set of science operations.

Two more transmissions on Wednesday, each lasting two minutes, confirmed the lander’s health, the European Space Agency wrote on the project's website.

Rosetta, which is orbiting about 112 miles (180 km) from the comet, will be lowered another two miles (three km) to better position itself for radio contact with Philae.

“It’s of utmost importance to see if we can get a stable communications pattern between the two machines,” Rosetta's deputy flight director, Elsa Montagnon of the European Space Agency, told reporters during a webcast news conference at the Paris Air Show.

Once regular communications are re-established, managers plan to put Philae back to work, starting with experiments that require little power and no movement of the lander. Eventually, scientists want to rotate Philae about 30 degrees so that its small drill can dig out samples from the comet for analysis.

The comet is covered in carbon-based material that may be similar to organics found on Earth.

“It’s something we can do, maybe not in the next weeks but certainly in the next months,” said Philippe Gaudon, Philae project manager at CNES, the French space agency.

Comets are believed to be relics of the building blocks that formed the solar system and may hold clues about how water and the chemicals that gave rise to life were delivered to Earth.

The comet circles the sun in an elliptical path that passes between the orbits of Earth and Mars and extends past Jupiter's orbit. Its closest approach to the sun will be on Aug. 13.

Rosetta will accompany 67P until at least the year's end before joining Philae on the comet's surface.

(irene.klotz@thomsonreuters.com)