Philae space probe, thought lost on comet, wakes up

Science and Tech

Philae A file handout photo released on November 12, 2014 by the European Space Agency shows a parting shot of the Philae lander after separation captured by Rosettaís OSIRIS narrow-angle camera. Europe’s comet lander Philae has woken up after a months-long sleep, hurtling towards the Sun in deep space, the president of France’s CNES space agency said on June 14, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team

The Philae lander space probe, thought lost, has woken up some seven months after officials thought it marooned in the shadows on a comet, the European Space Agency said Sunday.

ESA said it had received signals from the lander, which began “speaking” with its team on the ground for the first time since it went into hibernation following a botched landing on the comet in November. The comet lander worked for 60 hours before its solar-powered battery finally died.

“Tonight since the long period of the hibernation of the Philae lander we did again receive a signal, a sign of life from the lander,” project manager Stephan Ulamec told Reuters TV. “We got housekeeping data on the status, temperature, power as generated by the solar generator, so it appears the lander is healthy, it’s operational.”

Scientists believe that the probe is receiving increasing amounts of sunlight as the comet speeds closer to the sun, enabling its solar panels to produce the power needed for it to send data.

“We received new signals from (Philae) for a period of two minutes, as well as 40 seconds worth of data,” the president of France’s CNES space agency, Jean-Yves Le Gall, said.

In the shadows, Philae’s solar panels, which were meant to power the probe after its batteries ran out several days after landing, received far less than the expected six to seven hours sunshine per day.

“We will work now in the coming days on getting longer slots, longer communication slots and then we hope also to command again also the scientific instruments and get more signs from the commentary surface with the instruments,” Ulamec said.

Scientists hope that samples drilled from the comet by Philae will unlock details about how the planets – and possibly even life – evolved. The rock and ice that make up comets preserve ancient organic molecules like a time capsule.

The lander was released from its mothership Rosetta in November as it orbited the comet, in the climax of a 10-year mission for the ESA.

But harpoons to anchor it to the surface failed to deploy and it bounced twice before floating to rest two hours later.

Comets date back to the formation of the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists suspect comets delivered water to Earth when they collided with the planet aeons ago.

China has had its share of lost probes coming back to life and being found. Last year, the lunar rover, “Jade Rabbit,” was sent to the moon by China to study its surface and mineral resources, but experienced unexpected malfunctions six weeks into its operation. The lunar rover sent out a dying message last January, and entered into a deep “coma” that lasted for about 50 days before waking up in mid-March. Chinese authorities say the rover is severely handicapped but is still functioning.

Reuters and CCTV