BERLIN (AP) — The comet where a European spacecraft touched down last year made the closest approach to the sun of its 6 ½-year orbit on Thursday, and scientists said they still hope to hear more from the lander.
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko reached its closest point to the sun, known as perihelion, at 0203 GMT, putting it some 186 million kilometers (116 million miles) from the sun. It will now swing back out on an orbit that takes it as far away as 800 million kilometers (500 million miles).
The European Space Agency's Philae lander touched down on 67P in November. Philae sent back reams of data for about 60 hours after landing, then ran out of power. It started sending signals again in June as its solar panels got more light, but communication has been sporadic since and Philae has been quiet for the past month.
Mother craft Rosetta is following the comet — watching as increasing solar energy warms its ice and turns it into gas, which pours into space and drags dust with it. Michael Kueppers, the Rosetta science operations coordinator, said it was observing "small eruptions, many small outbursts" and that the activity is expected to continue increasing.
Mission controllers said that Rosetta, which was designed to fly closer to the sun and did so during its long trip to the comet, was doing well.
Philae engineer Barbara Cozzoni said the fact that the lander hasn't been heard from for over a month is "quite worrying." However, she said Rosetta, through which the lander sends signals, was poorly located for communication for part of that time and there apparently were problems with some Philae equipment.
"We are trying to find a workaround to the situation," she said. "We are working hard to get some science from Philae."