The Philae lander’s cosmic legacy officially comes to a close this week as the German space agency DLR announced it would cease communication with the comet-riding probe. Though not entirely surprising — the agency feared last month it would soon come to this — the team at DLR did spend the better part of the last few weeks sending commands to the dormant probe via its companion Rosetta spacecraft. Due in large part to plummeting temperatures and an accumulation of dust, Philae failed to pick up on Rosetta’s commands forcing the space agency to effectively discontinue its transmission efforts. For the rest of eternity (most likely), Philae will be a permanent resident of Comet 67P.
As Philae essentially hunkers own for its life-spanning hibernation, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe still plans on orbiting the comet to collect data until this coming September. While monitoring 67P, the ESA also intends to allow the craft to periodically search for signals from the lander in the event it decides to miraculously wake up — the DLR thinks the chances this happens are nearly zero, however. Additionally, Rosetta plans on executing a flyby of the comet sometime this coming summer where it will capture a few final photos of the lander which scientists hope will allow them to better understand the data Philae collected.
“When we see how Philae is positioned, we will be able to better interpret certain data, such as the measurements of the CONSERT radar experiment,” says DLR planetary scientist Ekkehard Kuhrt. “We have acquired a great deal of new information, but we are still far from a final understanding. The analysis of the data will continue for several years.”
When the mission comes to an end this September, the Rosetta spacecraft will also attempt to successfully land itself on the orbiting comet. In roughly six years, scientists say Comet 67P will once again circle back near Earth while also orbiting the sun once more. However, the ESA and DLR did not specify whether or not the solar energy consumed during this pass would allow Philae to wake from its cold, deep slumber, but did say (with overwhelming emphasis) that the Philae mission was a positive experience and useful lesson.
“Although some measurements could not be carried out, overall, Philae was a success,” Kuhrt continues. “We ended up in an unknown environment and for the first time ever, gathered scientific data from a comet’s surface, which we were able to complement with measurements from the orbiter. We can better adapt future missions to conditions on a comet.”
Despite their impending eternal slumbers, the Philae and Rosetta mission provided researchers unprecedented access to one of outer space’s biggest mysteries. Be it finding evidence of the building blocks of life or gathering samples and tweeting, the sum of its achievements are no doubt a massive victory for all those involved.