One year af­ter comet touch­down, what’s next for Phi­lae?

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

A year ago on Thurs­day, the world held its col­lec­tive breath as a Euro­pean space­craft dropped a tiny ro­bot lab onto the sur­face of a comet hurtling to­wards the Sun. The 12 months since that bumpy land­ing have yielded many ex­cit­ing sci­en­tific finds, and more than a lit­tle drama, as Phi­lae in­ter­mit­tently phoned home from its alien host be­tween long bouts of sleep. Now, af­ter four months with­out word, perched on comet 67P/Churyu­mov-Gerasi­menko, ground con­trollers are hop­ing for a last chance to make con­tact and even do some science be­fore the lan­der fi­nally runs out of steam. “We hope to re­sume a se­ries of sci­en­tific op­er­a­tions with Phi­lae in the com­ing weeks,” lan­der sci­en­tist Jean-Pierre Bib­ring told AFP.

As­sum­ing the lab’s in­stru­ments are work­ing and its so­lar pan­els tilted at the right an­gle, “we could have sev­eral con­tacts with the ro­bot be­gin­ning this week” and in­struct it to run ex­per­i­ments, pos­si­bly even the drill it has not yet suc­cess­fully de­ployed. Con­di­tions will be best in the pe­riod from the end of Novem­ber to the be­gin­ning of De­cem­ber, sci­en­tists say. Phi­lae touched down on 67P on Novem­ber 12 last year af­ter a 10-year, 6.5-bil­lion-kilo­me­tre (four-bil­lion-mile) jour­ney through space, pig­gy­back­ing on Euro­pean moth­er­ship Rosetta, now or­bit­ing the comet.

The land­ing was bumpy-the wash­ing ma­chine-sized lab bounced sev­eral times on the craggy sur­face be­fore end­ing up at an an­gle in deep shade, de­prived of bat­teryre­plen­ish­ing sun­light. Phi­lae sent home data from about 60 hours of comet sniff­ing and prod­ding with eight of its 10 in­stru­ments, be­fore go­ing into standby mode on Novem­ber 15, 2014.

Sta­tus un­known

The lan­der’s power pack was recharged as 67P drew closer to the Sun on its el­lip­ti­cal or­bit, and Phi­lae woke up on June 13, to great ex­cite­ment on Earth. It made eight in­ter­mit­tent con­tacts, up­load­ing data, only to fall silent again on July 9. The ro­bot lab’s cur­rent sta­tus is un­known. Part of the prob­lem is that Rosetta had to move into a more dis­tant or­bit, out of ra­dio reach, as its sen­si­tive star-nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem be­came con­fused in the out­pour­ing of dust from 67P as it shaved past the Sun.

So Phi­lae may be awake and try­ing to es­tab­lish con­tact, with­out any­one know­ing. The comet passed its clos­est point to the Sun, or per­i­he­lion, in Au­gust this year, and Rosetta has now started de­scend­ing as the dust has di­min­ished. By Mon­day, it was at about 200 km-down from some 300 km at its widest or­bit, and 10 km at its nar­row­est. In the­ory, Phi­lae should have enough so­lar power at its cur­rent dis­tance from the Sun-some 270 mil­lion kilo­me­ters-and a healthy core tem­per­a­ture. But the win­dow for con­tact is short, said Mark McCaugh­rean, se­nior science ad­vi­sor at the Euro­pean Space Agency. — AFP

SPACE : This file picture re­leased by the Euro­pean Space Agency on De­cem­ber 20, 2013 of an artist’s im­pres­sion of Rosetta’s lan­der Phi­lae (back view) on the sur­face of comet 67P/Churyu­mov-Gerasi­menko. — AFP

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