Paris – The European Space Agency (ESA) will try to reestablish contact with Philae spacecraft for the last time before it moves too far away from the sun.
The Philae probe landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November 12th 2014. Its main purpose was to give astronomers insights into the physics and chemistry of the massive space rock orbiting the sun, which it did before the spacecraft stopped communicating.
During its landing, Philae suffered a malfunction in its landing systems and it was unable to anchor itself. As a result, the spacecraft rebounded four times before finally it rested at a location that has been called Abydos. Unfortunately, the spacecraft landed on its side next to a cliff wall, where not enough sunlight could reach its solar panels to provide power.
After just 54 hours, the batteries went dead and Philae went into hibernation on November 15th, 2014. However, the Rosetta orbiter mothership kept watch until contact was briefly reestablished on June 14th, 2015. After months of silence, a signal was detected on December 21th and 22th 2015, but this was dismissed after analysis. The last contact with Philae was on July 9th.
Now, it has been 6 months since the last time the probe last communicated with ESA scientists and time is running out to get it back in working order. The comet, which made its closest approach to the sun in August, will be more than 186 million miles away by the end of the month. As it draws farther away, Philae’s solar panels generate less electricity and the lander will soon be unable to power its systems or keep its electronics from freezing. When its temperature drops below minus 60º F, it will no longer be able to function or be capable of reactivating.
Engineers at the German Aerospace Centre in Darmstadt say the odds of reestablishing contact each day as the comet follows its elliptical orbital path away from the sun but they are planning to try it one more time.
European scientists will try to transmit a signal into space on Sunday, January 10th hoping to nudge Philae back to life and hopefully restore contact. If the signal works, scientists will be able to command its flywheel, a device that was used to stabilize the spacecraft during its descent to the comet’s surface. If they manage to command the wheel they will be able to shift Philae, shaking dust from its solar panels and aligning the craft so it collects more sunlight.
“There is a small chance. We want to leave no stone unturned,” Cinzia Fantinati, operations manager from DLR or the German Aerospace Center’s Philae control team said.
Meanwhile, the Rosetta mothership, which has been orbiting the comet since August 2014, is expected to remain operational until September 2016.