Philae probe drills into comet


Published: Saturday 15th November 2014 by The News Editor

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The European spacecraft that landed on a comet has performed two tricky manoeuvres by drilling into the rocky surface and rotating itself to catch more sunlight.

Both operations carried considerable risks because they could have toppled the probe or pushed it out into the void, but without them the Philae lander that scored a historic first by touching down on a comet on Wednesday risked skipping a key scientific experiment and running out of battery.

Scientists at the European Space Agency said the manoeuvres appeared to have worked.

“My rotation was successful (35 degrees). Looks like a whole new comet from this angle,” read a message posted on the lander’s official Twitter account.

Earlier, the scientists tweeted: “First comet drilling is a fact!”

Since landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 311 million miles away, the lander has performed a series of tests and sent reams of data, including photos, back to Earth.

But with just two or three days of power in its primary battery, the lander has to rely on solar panels to generate electricity after that.

Scientists were concerned to find yesterday that not only had Philae unexpectedly bounced twice before coming to rest untethered to the surface, but photos indicated it was next to a cliff that largely blocked 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, had said.

With time running out, scientists decided to risk moving the lander and performing one of the most important experiments it was sent into space for.

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

Mission controllers said Philae was able to bore 10in into the comet to start collecting the samples, but it is unclear whether it has enough power to deliver any information on them.

It was not immediately clear whether the rotation had succeeded in putting the lander’s solar panels out of the shadow.

Meanwhile, the Rosetta – Philae’s mother ship, which is streaking through space in tandem with the comet – will use its 11 instruments to analyse the comet over the coming months.

Published: Saturday 15th November 2014 by The News Editor

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