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Rosetta: Comet lander Philae now stable say scientists

2014-11-13 14:20:56

A brand new image shows the view from the Philae lander of the surface of the comet

The robot probe Philae that made a historic comet landing is now stable after initially failing to attach to the surface, and is sending pictures.

Efforts are now being made to locate the precise position of the European Space Agency probe on the surface.

Engineers say it may have bounced hundreds of metres back off the comet after first contact, before finally settling down.

It is hoped Philae can gain insights into the origins of our Solar System.

The first pictures indicate that the lander is sitting at an angle - perhaps on a slope, or maybe even on its side. But the team is continuing to receive "great data" from Philae.

Esa's Rosetta satellite carried Philae on a 6.4 billion-km (4bn-mile) journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Signals from the landing are still being analysed - but this is the team's current best guess at how events unfolded

The robot probe, the size of a washing machine, was dropped from the satellite on Wednesday and spent seven hours travelling down to the icy body.

News of the "first" landing was confirmed at about 16:05 GMT.

Ebullient mood

Controllers re-established radio communication with the probe on cue on Thursday after a scheduled break, and began pulling of the new pictures.

These show the feet of the lander and the wider cometscape. One of the three feet is not in contact with the ground.

But there is still concern about the longer-term stability of Philae because it is not properly anchored - the harpoons that should have hooked it into the surface did not fire on contact. Neither did its feet screws get any purchase.

Lander project manager Stephan Ulamec told the BBC that he was very wary of now commanding the harpoons to fire, as this could throw Philae back off into space.

He also has worries about drilling into the comet because this too could affect the stability of the lander.

"We are still not anchored," he said. "We are sitting with the weight of the lander somehow on the comet. We are pretty sure where we landed the first time, and then we made quite a leap. Some people say it is in the order of 1 km high.

"And then we had another small leap, and now we are sitting there, and transmitting, and everything else is something we have to start understanding and keep interpreting."

David Shukman, BBC science editor

Touching down on a comet is mind-blowing in itself, but try picturing how the tiny Philae lander has then bounced around its new home.

From what we know, the lander rose hundreds of metres above the surface at one stage and remained in flight for nearly two hours. One might say it was airborne, except that the comet has no air.

In any event, it may have risen vertically or drifted sideways - we should hear later. Either way, while Philae was off the surface, the comet will have rotated beneath it. Each rotation takes about 12 hours which means the lander may effectively travelled across one-sixth of the comet's surface.

By the time it came down again, the original landing zone - chosen for its relative safety and ideal amount of sunshine - was left far behind. The lander is now in different, undetermined area that may prove far more hazardous.

The first picture is confusing, but suggests Philae is sitting at an angle. Everyone here is hungry for more news.

One of the cameras on Philae sent this image of the comet during the descent

Another issue being analysed is the amount of sunlight available to Philae.

The probe left Rosetta with 60-plus hours of battery life, and will then need to charge up with its solar panels.

But early reports indicate that in its present position, it is receiving only one-and-a-half hours of sunlight during every 12-hour rotation of the comet.

This will not be enough to sustain operations.

As a consequence, controllers here are discussing using one of Philae's deployable instruments to try to launch the probe upwards and away to a better location. But that would be a last-resort option.

The Royal Mail is commemorating the landing with a special postmark, which will be applied to all mail delivered across the UK from Friday to Saturday

First, the team really need to understand where Philae is on the surface and what lies around it.

Holger Sierks, the principal investigator of the science cameras on Philae's mothership, Rosetta, which is circling the comet overhead, said his team was now trying to take pictures of the robot's location.

These pictures will show very little detail because Rosetta is many tens of kilometres away, but they will help pinpoint the place the little probe came to rest after its bouncing.

Even if Philae does not live beyond its initial battery life, scientists will be delighted with the data they have already got.

The information will transform what we know about these objects, and enable researchers to test several hypotheses about the formation of the Solar System and the origins of life.

One theory holds that comets were responsible for delivering water to the planets. Another idea is that they could have "seeded" the Earth with the chemistry needed to help kick-start biology.

Mission facts:

Philae lander

  • Travelled 6.4 billion km (four billion miles) to reach the comet
  • Journey took 10 years
  • Planning for the journey began 25 years ago

Comet 67P

  • More than four billion years old
  • Mass of 10 billion tonnes
  • Hurtling through space at 18km/s (40,000mph)
  • Shaped like a rubber duck

Can you land on a comet?

'More black swan than yellow duck'

Brief encounters with comets

A quick look at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko - and what it could teach us


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