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The Little Robot That Could

June 14, 2015

The little space-bot, Philae, made history last November by being the first-ever robot to land on a comet. While amazing in its technological feats and detailed measurements of comet 67P taken at close range, all was not perfect with this historic landing, leading European Space Agency (ESA) scientists to admit that, shortly after landing they did not in fact know Philae’s location on the comet.

The glitch was a misfire of Philae’s landing harpoons such that the robot bounced off the comet twice, eventually becoming wedged in one of the comet’s cliffs, the precise location of which, the scientists admitted, was unknown.

Panoramic image of Philae's final landing site captured by the Rosetta orbiter's CIVA-P imaging system.  The 360º view shows roughly the point of final touchdown. The lander is sketched on top of the image in its estimated configuration (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA).

Panoramic image of Philae’s final landing site captured by the Rosetta orbiter’s CIVA-P imaging system.
The 360º view shows roughly the point of final touchdown. The lander is sketched on top of the image in its estimated configuration (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA).

Due to the non-sticky landing, the final orientation of Philae’s solar panels were such that it was unable to capture enough sunlight to power its instruments. Yet, not to be undone, mission scientists completed nearly all of the robot’s science goals atop the comet within the 60 hours of the lander’s battery life. Further, through the brief contact window, mission engineers were able to rotate the Philae’s solar panels in such a way that, just possibly, Philae might capture enough sunlight to “reawaken” and continue its groundbreaking science as comet 67P neared the inner solar system, thought to be sometime during the summer of 2015.

Now, Philae has made history again. To great excitement, the little robot has awakened from its long hibernation, with the news revealed via ESA mission Tweet:

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Rosetta mission scientists today stated that Philae is doing quite well, communicating with the ground team for 85 seconds. With an operating temperature of -35ºC (-31ºF), it has acquired enough sunlight to power operations so that it may continue exploring the cometary molecules that are the primitive leftovers from solar system formation. Studying these molecules will give scientists clues as to how our solar system, and possibly life, formed and evolved.

Rosetta scientists analyzing the new data think that Philae may actually have been awake even earlier than today. They now await next contact so that the 8000 data packets in the robot’s memory can be analyzed, hopefully revealing clues as to what new information Philae gathered in the past few days of mysterious operations.

Fans of this mission may recall Professor Monica Grady’s sheer joy on landing day, November 12, 2014, a reminder of the true passion scientists have for their work:

If you think that reaction was atypical, Dr. Grady revealed today that, upon hearing Philae’s news while in a taxi, she was so excited she hugged the driver. Congratulations, Philae, your team, and all who root for you!

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