Researchers at the European Space Agency are anxiously awaiting their Christmas presents: new pictures of the Philae lander snapped by the orbiting Rosetta spacecraft just a few days ago. They should reveal whether the probe can wake up next year and continue studying comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko up close.
The exact location of Philae has been a mystery since it came to a rough landing on the comet in November. It came to rest in the shadow of a cliff, keeping its solar panels out of full sunlight and leaving ESA uncertain as to whether the probe would be able to wake up once its initial power supplies ran out.
The team are planning a review to figure out what went wrong. But the latest analysis of data gathered by Philae during its brief waking time on the comet suggest it is receiving just enough sunlight to survive the cold and is very likely to switch on again next year.
The team has created a rough 3D model of Philae’s surroundings based on photographs captured after landing that suggests it is nestled between two rocky outcrops. The model suggests that the lander is currently receiving four and a half hours of sunlight a day, providing enough power to keep crucial components warm and run its boot-up sequence, but not enough to actually do science, said lead Philae scientist Jean-Pierre Bibring at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, California earlier today.
Here comes the sun
High-resolution images of the landing spot will refine this 3D model and allow the team to predict how much more sunlight will reach Philae as comet 67P gets nearer to the sun. Rosetta pointed its camera in the right area a couple of weeks ago, but at a time when Philae was in shadow. New images taken over the weekend, when the landing area was lit up, are in the queue to be downloaded from Rosetta and should reach Earth in the next few days. “It’s a bit like waiting for Christmas presents,” said Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor.
“The question of how much power we’ll get is really a function of where we are now,” said Bibring, who is confident that Philae will be revived, perhaps as early as January, though later in the year is more likely. “My suspicion is that we’ll be in a good shape.”
If Philae does wake up, its awkward landing could actually be a boon for science. Analysis of the images already received have revealed a number of accessible icy surfaces – more than the probe would have been able to see from a flat landing spot.
“We have a large diversity of materials ahead of us, much larger than we hoped,” said Bibring.
“It’s a better spot than we could have wished, in terms of science,” agreed Taylor.
Nearly all of Philae’s instruments should get a second chance at studying the comet, if the probe reactivates. Only the MUPUS penetrator, a rod designed to hammer into the surface and measure the temperature, can’t be reused. Bibring hopes to try drilling into the comet’s surface, as readings from the previous drilling remain inconclusive. “We can essentially redo all that we had planned to do,” he said.
Credit — http://www.newscientist.com/