August 13, 2015 / 3:06 PM / 5 years ago

Comet lander still silent, scientists shift focus to drilling

BERLIN/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - European scientists have revised their plans for the comet lander Philae and are now focusing on getting images and drill samples if communications are restored.

Paolo Ferri (R) Head of Rosetta Mission Operations, seen on a video projection behind a model of the Philae lander, reacts after the successful landing of the lander on comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko, at the European Space Agency's (ESA) headquarters in Darmstadt November 12, 2014. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski/Files

After coming to rest in the shadows when it landed on a comet in November, Philae woke up in June, delighting scientists from the European Space Agency, who came up with plans for several experiments they wanted to run before working up to the most risky one - drilling into the surface.

But with the 100kg washing-machine size lander having been silent for over a month now, those plans have been revised.

“The problem is not power, but communications,” Aurelie Moussi from space agency CNES said in a webcast on Thursday. “We have to find something to do in a shorter duration.”

She said the priorities were now to get pictures from the surface and also to drill into the surface, which Philae was not able to do when it first landed in November.

Scientists hope that samples from the surface of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will help show how planets and life are created as the rock and ice that make up comets preserve organic molecules like a time capsule.

The Rosetta spacecraft, which is orbiting the comet and through which communications with Philae are relayed to Earth, has spent two weeks at a different part of the comet. But since Aug. 11, it has been back in an area where it should be able to communicate with Philae.

No contact has been established though and the data from the last communications shows one of the lander’s transmitters is broken. Its two receivers are also not working as they should, Barbara Cozzoni, Philae operations engineer said.

The comet on Thursday passed the closest point to the sun on its orbit, about 185 million kilometers from the sun.

The comet’s activity levels have been increasing as it approaches the sun and it’s now shedding up to 1,000 kg of dust and enough water to fill two bathtubs every second.

When Rosetta first approached the comet last year, the comet was giving off only about two small glasses of water per second.

Scientists have also observed powerful gas jets, though Cozzoni said it was unlikely that Philae could be pushed off into space by a jet.

Reporting by Victoria Bryan and Maria Sheahan; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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