The European Space Agency made history Wednesday with the first landing of a space probe on a comet, but alarming data and pictures coming back from the lander Thursday indicate they may have trouble keeping it there.
After detaching from the Rosetta spacecraft, the Philae lander was to use both a set of harpoons and a thruster mounted on top of the probe to make a slow descent onto comet 67P/Churyumox-Gerasimenko. Both failed to anchor the lander onto its intended landing zone, and Philae has since bounced twice before settling onto some rough terrain near what looks like a cliff.
— Philae Lander (@Philae2014) November 13, 2014
The Philae team isn’t sure where exactly the probe has landed, but estimate it could be half-a-mile away from its intended landing zone. (RELATED: Spacecraft Lands On A Comet For The First Time In History)
None of Philae’s three feet have screwed into the surface of 67P, and one of them isn’t even touching the ground. The cliff Philae landed near poses an additional problem, as the shadow it casts is blocking the sun for all but 1.5 hours for every 12-hour comet rotation, which prevents the probe’s solar panels from recharging Philae’s 60-hour battery.
In a BBC report the ESA explained that could put the probe out of commission by Sunday.
In its current state Philae likely won’t be able to drill into the surface for sampling and tests without damaging, spinning or moving the lander, and mission controllers fear firing the probe’s harpoons again could bounce Philae back above the surface. Now they have to decide whether trying to launch the probe into a new location is a worthwhile option or last resort.
The Philae team is working to figure out where the lander is and what its surroundings are like before they make a decision, but if Philae stays where it is, the team will likely wait until close to the end of the lander’s operational capacity before attempting to use the drill for a surface sample — one of the mission’s key objectives. (RELATED: Watch The First-Ever Landing Of A Space Probe On A Comet Live)