Comet lander starts drilling amid battery life worries

The good news: The spacecraft that landed on a comet has begun drilling beneath the surface to see what secrets the celestial body can reveal.

The bad news: Scientists at the European Space Agency still don’t know exactly where the lander is on the comet and are anxiously hoping its batteries hold out long enough for them to get the mining data and adjust the spacecraft’s position.

It was a race against time yesterday for the Philae lander, which on Wednesday became the first spacecraft to touch down on a comet.

Since then it has sent astonishing images from the icy, dusty comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and generated some data from instruments such as one that measures temperatures.

All this is taking place 311m miles (500m km) from Earth on a comet hurtling 41,000mph (66,000kph) through space.

Material beneath the surface of the comet has remained almost unchanged for 4.5bn years, making those mining samples a cosmic time capsule that scientists are eager to study.

Mission controllers said Philae was able to bore 25cm into the comet to start collecting the samples, but it’s unclear whether it has enough power to deliver any information on them.

The lander has an estimated 64 hours of battery power but has to rely on solar panels to generate electricity after that.

Scientists hoped the batteries would still have some juice the next time the lander was due to make contact, late last night. The agency said it would provide an update on that over the weekend.

Philae bounced twice on the comet before coming to rest Wednesday after two harpoons that should have anchored it to the surface failed to deploy.

Controllers still haven’t been able to pinpoint its position, but photos indicate it’s next to a cliff that is largely blocking sunlight from reaching two of its three solar panels.

Maybe the battery will be empty before we contact again,” said Stephan Ulamec, head of operations for Philae.

If the batteries are still running and scientists can extract the scientific data from the craft, they will rotate the lander slightly so that it might capture more sunlight.

After the batteries run out, Philae will remain on the comet in a hibernation mode for the coming months. The comet is on a 6 1/2-year elliptical orbit around the sun. Philae could wake up again if the comet passes the sun in such a way that its solar panels catch more light.


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