Things are really not looking good for the Philae lander.
The small spacecraft from the European Space Agency became the first to land softly on a comet back in November 2014, but scientists have hardly heard from it ever since. A few things went wrong during the landing and Philae was unable to anchor to the surface of the comet. After a few impressive bounces, the lander came to rest in a dark part of the comet, possibly toppled over.
The orbiting Rosetta spacecraft has managed to talk to the lander on a few brief occasions, but we haven’t heard from Philae since July. Now things are getting critical, says ESA.
In August, the comet reached its closest approach to the sun; now, as the days pass, Comet 67P is getting farther and farther from the sun. That doesn’t bode well for the solar-powered lander, and temperatures are dropping. ESA predicts that by the end of January it’ll be too cold for Philae to operate.
In a last-ditch effort to revive the lost lander, on Sunday ESA tried switching on a spinwheel that helped the spacecraft stay stable during landing. The hope was that the momentum of the spinning wheel could shift Philae into a more favorable position, or at least dust off its solar panels.
Sadly, so far it looks as if the effort was unsuccessful:
The German Space Agency tweeted that the orbiter will fly within listening range of the lander twice a day until January 21, when the orbiter will move to a different hemisphere of the comet. The Rosetta orbiter will continue listening for Philae even after January, just in case the lander comes back to life.
An ESA press statement said that turning on the spinwheel would be “one of the last attempts to obtain a response from the lander.” Let’s hope they have a few more tricks up their sleeve.