News Brief: Surprise — comet lander awoke!

Lack of sunlight had sent it into a deep slumber

This close-up of the comet shows where Philae probably came to rest. The bright spot could be the lander itself or just a feature of the comet's surface, mission scientists say.


The tiny comet lander Philae (FEE-LAY) has phoned home.

It has been sitting on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko since November 12 when it had a bumpy touch down. Indeed, it didn’t stick that landing. After bouncing twice, it settled in the shadow of a cliff. Because solar energy recharges the batteries that power its on-board instruments — including those used to send data back to Earth — that shadow proved a problem. It cut the lander’s power. Eventually, it went into hibernation.

Scientists had worried Philae might have entered a coma from which it would never waken. But on June 13, the lander pinged the European Space Agency, or ESA. Its 85-second transmission let mission scientists know the lander was awake and ready to get back to work.

Philae and its 10 instruments entered hibernation 3 days after its rocky landing. Since March, mission scientists had been listening for signs of life from the lander.  The new data suggest Philae has been awake for a bit and may have tried to call home earlier.

ESA’s comet-exploration team is now waiting for Philae’s next contact so that more of the lander’s data can be downloaded. Those data could fill in a few more details about what Philae has been up to the last few days, team reports in a June 14 blog post.

And the goal is to get as much data as quickly as possible. As its host comet nears the sun, Philae will heat up dramatically. Eventually, its instruments will essentially get fried.

Power Words

comet    A celestial object consisting of a nucleus of ice and dust. When a comet passes near the sun, gas and dust vaporize off the comet’s surface, creating its trailing “tail.”

lander  A special, small vehicle designed to ferry humans or scientific equipment between a spacecraft and the celestial body they will explore.

solar  Having to do with the sun, including the light and energy it gives off.

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