The comet lan­der Phi­lae has fi­nally phoned home

Sky at Night Magazine - - BULLETIN -

ROSETTA’S PHI­LAE LAN­DER has awo­ken on the sur­face of Comet 67P/Churyu­movGerasi­menko af­ter a long hi­ber­na­tion. ESA mis­sion con­trollers were thrilled to re­ceive sig­nals from the lan­der in mid-June, when the comet moved close enough to the Sun to charge up the lan­der’s so­lar-pow­ered bat­ter­ies.

The Rosetta space­craft, which is cur­rently or­bit­ing the 4km-wide comet, dropped Phi­lae onto the dusty snow­ball’s sur­face in Novem­ber last year. But the lan­der com­mu­ni­cated for only 60 hours be­cause it fell into a shad­owy ditch, where its so­lar pan­els re­ceived very lit­tle sun­light.

Sci­en­tists hoped the lan­der would ‘reawaken’ as the comet moved closer to the Sun. And sure enough, af­ter seven months of si­lence, it made con­tact again on 13 June.

“Phi­lae is do­ing very well – the lan­der is ready for op­er­a­tions,” said Stephan Ulamec, ESA pro­ject man­ager for Phi­lae. “All lan­der sub­sys­tems are work­ing nom­i­nally, with no ap­par­ent degra­da­tion af­ter more than half a year hid­ing out on the comet’s frozen sur­face.”

Since then, the first pri­or­ity has been to as­sess the lan­der’s po­si­tion and ori­en­ta­tion, then mea­sure en­vi­ron­men­tal fea­tures such as tem­per­a­tures and magnetic fields. If Phi­lae’s bat­ter­ies con­tinue to power up, it will hope­fully beam back sharp im­ages of the weird cometary land­scape and even­tu­ally drill into the sur­face to an­a­lyse its chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion.

The mis­sion re­mains pre­car­i­ous for both Rosetta and Phi­lae, how­ever, be­cause the comet will con­tinue to heat and ac­ti­vate, fizzing out gas and dust un­pre­dictably. It will make its clos­est ap­proach to the Sun on 13 Au­gust.

See Com­ment, right

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