Comet lander starts drilling; batteries a worry (Update)

Comet craft starts drilling; location still sought
This image released by the European Space Agency ESA Thursday Nov. 13, 2014 was taken by Philae's down-looking descent ROLIS imager when it was about 40 meters (131 feet) above the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Wednesday. It shows that the surface of the comet is covered by dust and debris ranging from mm to metre sizes The large block in the top right corner is 5 m in size. In the same corner the structure of the Philae landing gear is visible. The lander scored a historic first Wednesday, touching down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after a decade-long, 6.4 billion-kilometer (4 billion-mile) journey through space aboard its mother ship, Rosetta. The comet is streaking through space at 41,000 mph (66,000 kph) some 311 million miles (500 million kilometers) from Earth. (AP Photo/Esa,Rosetta,Philae)

The good news: The spacecraft that landed on a comet has begun drilling beneath the surface to see what secrets the celestial body can reveal.

The bad news: Scientists at the European Space Agency still don't know exactly where the lander is on the comet and are anxiously hoping its batteries hold out long enough for them to get the mining data and adjust the spacecraft's position.

It was a race against time Friday for the Philae lander, which on Wednesday became the first spacecraft to touch down on a comet. Since then it has sent astonishing images from the icy, dusty comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and generated some data from instruments such as one that measures temperatures.

All this is taking place 311 million miles (500 million kilometers) from Earth on a comet hurtling 41,000 mph (66,000 kph) through space.

Material beneath the surface of the comet has remained almost unchanged for 4.5 billion years, making those mining samples a cosmic time capsule that scientists are eager to study.

Mission controllers said Philae was able to bore 25 centimeters (10 inches) into the comet to start collecting the samples, but it's unclear whether it has enough power to deliver any information on them.

The lander has an estimated 64 hours of battery power but has to rely on solar panels to generate electricity after that. Scientists hoped the batteries would still have some juice the next time the lander was due to make contact, late Friday night. The agency said it would provide an update on that over the weekend.

Philae bounced twice on the comet before coming to rest Wednesday after two harpoons that should have anchored it to the surface failed to deploy. Controllers still haven't been able to pinpoint its position, but photos indicate it's next to a cliff that is largely blocking sunlight from reaching two of its three solar panels.

"Maybe the battery will be empty before we contact again," said Stephan Ulamec, head of operations for Philae.

A European Space Agency photo released on November 13, 2014 by the European Space Agency shows the Philae lander
A European Space Agency photo released on November 13, 2014 by the European Space Agency shows the Philae lander

If the batteries are still running and scientists can extract the scientific data from the craft, they will rotate the lander slightly so that it might capture more sunlight.

"That would increase the chance that, at a later stage, the lander could wake up again and start talking to us again," Ulamec said.

After the batteries run out, Philae will remain on the comet in a hibernation mode for the coming months. The comet is on a 6 1/2-year elliptical orbit around the sun. Philae could wake up again if the comet passes the sun in such a way that its solar panels catch more light.

Meanwhile, the Rosetta—Philae's mother ship, which is streaking through space in tandem with the comet—will use its 11 instruments to analyze the comet over the coming months.

Scientists hope the $1.6 billion (1.3 billion-euro) project that was launched a decade ago will help them answer questions about the origins of the universe and life on Earth.

Communication with the lander is slow, with signals taking more than 28 minutes to travel between Earth and Rosetta.

No matter how long Philae keeps talking to them, scientists say they already have gathered huge amounts of data and are calling the expedition a roaring success.

"Let's stop looking at things that we could have done if everything had worked properly," said flight director Andrea Accomazzo. "Let us look at things that we have done, what we have achieved and what we have on the ground. This is unique and will be unique forever."

As for pinpointing Philae's position, Holger Sierks, the principal investigator for the Rosetta's camera systems, said the cameras should have captured the lander's rebound, yielding valuable information on where it came to rest.

That data has not yet come in, however. Specialists still need to comb one and two square kilometers (0.4 and 0.8 square miles) on the comet to find Philae.

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Philae probing comet with hours left on battery

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Nov 14, 2014
Brilliant idea. Drilling without ice anchors should lift her off, not tip her over. Once lift off, the hope is resettlig will occur in a less shadowed site. Whats to loose.?

Nov 14, 2014
Next time you spend a billion trying to land on a comet, maybe send two or three landers, in case one gets smushed?

Nov 14, 2014
The should have gone to HobbyLand and bought a couple of those tiny model rockets to add on the lander to move it- a whole $5. The lander only weighs a few grams.

Nov 14, 2014
The should have gone to HobbyLand and bought a couple of those tiny model rockets to add on the lander to move it- a whole $5. The lander only weighs a few grams.

And how much does the model rocket engine weigh on 67P? How does the ratio between the lander and engine compare to the one here on earth?

Nov 14, 2014
One thing I like about this spectacle is the soviet style propaganda of turning this failure into a huge success.

Nov 14, 2014
Philae failed to attach to the comet surface because the small nitrogen rocket on top of Philae failed to fire to push it firmly onto the surface when the harpoons etc tried to attach. The small rocket failed to fire because the mechanism for breaking its wax seal failed to break the seal.
That important detail was unmentioned on the #spaceweek ScienceChannel TV show, but Rachel Maddow was on the ball and gave us that detail.

Nov 15, 2014
This is what happens, when you have frenchies leading huge technological projects - tremendous costs, unbelievable incompetence, failure guaranteed, huge PR (mainly for excuses and trying to polish a failure into a feature). I've seen this personally in the automotive industry.
If they've poured these 1.3bn EUR into the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope, we could have seen Earths around the nearest G/K (sun-like) stars already...

Nov 15, 2014
@zorro, Lischyn: Lander mass was severely restricted, part of the reason why it took 10 years, a martian gravity assist, and the longest period of craft shutdown ever tried to get to the comet in the first place. Hence extra landers or thrusters had to be left out.

@nEc: The primary mission of Rosetta and Philae can be a 100 % success. And you are disappointed? You disappoint me...

Also, false choice is false. We can do, and will do and are doing, both planetary and exoplanet studies.

And we need them both. Rosetta studies inform on disk formation, comet formation and planet formation which goes toward exoplanet studies. And the dominant part of biospheres, both in number and volume, may be ice moons in the tidal HZ (such as Europa). The only way to estimate their habitability and habitation is to look within our own system, to be able to make estimates on the rest.

Nov 15, 2014
@Torbjorn_Larsson_OM: MAYBE is far away from IT IS. Oceans beneath Europa, Ganymede and Enceladus' surfaces could be just sterile, very saline masses of water and this is very plausible assumption. I don't see how could you relate tidal moons with comets, thus both are objects with completely different history, orbits and composition (the sole exception being Triton). Yes, I agree, we need both exo and intra-planetary surveys, but not PR actions with unsure outcome, like Rosetta/Philae. And I can't agree that comets or Solar System history at all could have bigger priority, than finding habitable worlds with historically established parameters, like possible Earths...and I'm not mentioning other "extras", coming with d=100m single aperture design and the security/costs/management of operating on Earth (yes, I'm talking again about the OWL).
And, IMO, all this has nothing to do with ALWAYS poor french management. I remember JAXA landing a $40m spaceship on asteroid not so long ago...

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