In the late hours of Sunday, the European Space Agency’s comet lander Philae was found, months after scientists believed it had been lost in space forever.
Sent on a ten-year long journey to the Kuiper Belt – a cosmic road of asteroids beyond Neptune at the peripheries of the solar system – the robot spacecraft Philae arrived and landed at its icy destination, comet 67P, in November 2014.
The Rosetta probe transported the robot lander to the comet, where it operated for 60 hours before falling silent. A great deal of information was mined from Philae’s examination of the comet, such as the finding that the dust of the comet contained glycine, an amino acid central to the building of proteins and DNA. On 9 July 2015, it was assumed that the batteries had been run completely flat. Once silent, Philae’s location became a mystery.
But following the development of new images from Rosetta’s Osiris camera, photographic evidence has been made available to unmistakably confirm Philae’s location. The images show that it is sitting on an overhang named Abydos which was previously masked by darkness.
Speaking to the BBC, Professor Mark McCaughrean of the European Space Agency explained why finding Philae matters so much. “It was very important to find Philae before the mission ended, to understand the context of its in-situ scientific measurements,” McCaughrean said.
“But it was probably just as important to provide some emotional closure for the millions who have been following both Philae and Rosetta through the trials and tribulations of their exploration of this remarkable remnant of the birth of our Solar System. And there’s one big final adventure to come on 30 September as Rosetta itself descends to the comet, doing unique science close-up before the mission ends for good.”
Despite the comet lander no longer being functional, discovery of its hiding spot means a more accurate analysis of the data from Philae can be undertaken. With the Space Agency gearing up to bring the whole mission to a close towards the end of the month, researchers and avid followers of Philae’s journey can gain closure knowing exactly where its final resting place is.