At ‘final hour’, Rosetta spots once-lost Philae lander on Comet 67p

5 Sep 2016

The 2.7km-wide area of Comet 67p where Philae was located (extreme right centre of image). Image via ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Once thought lost within the crevices of Comet 67p, the European Space Agency (ESA) has released a new image revealing where the Philae lander crashed on the comet’s surface.

The Philae lander had been thought lost within the comet, releasing a brief flurry of scientific data before dying after a heavy landing on Comet 67p as part of the Rosetta mission.

It was later found that the lander’s reverse thrusters failed to work properly, resulting in it spinning 2km away from its targeted landing site and bouncing out of view with minimal energy for conducting experiments.

After months of searching, Rosetta – the lander’s parent craft – officially cut its ties with Philae in July,  with the craft seemingly unable to communicate any longer.

However, the ESA has revealed that, with just one month to go before Rosetta crashes into the comet as part of a final hurrah, it has been able to capture the first photo of Philae after a ‘long, painstaking search’.

Philae lander close-up

Close-up of the Philae lander. Image via ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

ESA delighted with find

Taken on 2 September by Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera, the images show that Philae came within 2.7km of the surface, wedged into one of the comet’s dark cracks.

Without knowing its exact location until now, ESA scientists used radio ranging data to tie its location down to an area spanning a few tens of metres.

However, a number of potential candidate objects identified in relatively low-resolution images taken from larger distances could not be analysed in detail until recently.

There is cause for celebration within the ESA as, aside from finding the much-loved spacecraft, the discovery of its location allows the space agency to put its scientific findings into a proper context.

“After months of work, with the focus and the evidence pointing more and more to this lander candidate, I’m very excited and thrilled that we finally have this all-important picture of Philae sitting in Abydos,” said Westmeath native, and Philae search party leader, Laurence O’Rourke.

The timing of the discovery comes in Rosetta’s ‘final hour’ as, on 30 September, the orbiter will be sent on a one-way descent into Comet 67p, to help reveal secrets of the body’s interior structure.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic