Comet lander falls silent, scientists fear it has moved

Pits on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko’s northern hemisphere are pictured in this August 3, 2014 handout photo obtained by Reuters July 1, 2015. REUTERS/European Space Agency/Handout via Reuters

BERLIN (Reuters) ­ The Philae comet lander has fallen silent, European scientists said on Monday, raising fears that it has moved again on its new home millions of miles from Earth.

The fridge­sized robotic lab, which landed on comet 67P/Churyumov­Gerasimenko in November, last made contact on July 9 and efforts to reach it again have so far failed, experts working for the historic European Space Agency project said.

The lander ­ the first mission to land on a comet, this one traveling as fast as 135,000 kph ­ initially bounced and landed in a position too shadowy to power its solar panels.

It woke up in June as the comet moved closer to the sun.  But the latest data suggests something, possibly a gas emission, may have moved it again, the scientists said.

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The Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in an image taken by the Rosetta space probe on June 7, 2015 and distributed by the European Space Agency (ESA) on June 17, 2015. REUTERS/ESA - European Space Agency/Handout via Reuters
The Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in an image taken by the Rosetta space probe on June 7, 2015 and distributed by the European Space Agency (ESA) on June 17, 2015. REUTERS/ESA – European Space Agency/Handout via Reuters

“The profile of how strongly the sun is falling on which panels has changed from June to July, and this does not seem to be explained by the course of the seasons on the comet alone,” Stephan Ulamec, Philae project manager at the DLR German Aerospace Centre said in a statement.

Philae’s antenna may have been obstructed, and one of its transmitters appears to have stopped working, the team said.

There was no answer to a command sent to activate Philae’s ROMAP instrument to determine the comet’s plasma environment and magnetic field.

Communications between Philae and its Rosetta orbiter are also tricky because the increasing amounts of dust thrown off by the comet as it approaches the Sun make it hard for the orbiter to stay close to the comet, they added.

The Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in an image taken by the Rosetta space probe on June 13, 2015 and distributed by the European Space Agency (ESA) on June 17, 2015. REUTERS/ESA - European Space Agency/Handout via Reuters
The Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen in an image taken by the Rosetta space probe on June 13, 2015 and distributed by the European Space Agency (ESA) on June 17, 2015. REUTERS/ESA – European Space Agency/Handout via Reuters

Scientists have now sent out a command telling Philae to use just one transmitter, and have started moving the orbiter to a safer distance around 170­190 km from the comet

Until July 24, Rosetta will orbit a path that may allow it to contact the lander and then it will fly over the southern hemisphere of the comet to observe it with its own 11 instruments. “Philae is obviously still functional, because it sends us data, even if it does so at irregular intervals and at surprising times,” Ulamec said.

(Reporting by Victoria Bryan; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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