Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Science & Tech
6 September 2016updated 01 Jul 2021 11:38am

Found in space: the lost comet lander Philae has finally been discovered after a two-year search

Newly developed images from the Rosetta probe pinpointed Philae's whereabouts on comet 67P.

By Hasan Chowdhury

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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

“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. 

Topics in this article: