Like in a Disney film, there has been space drama where a little robot has become lost in space. This has made Mark and me follow things with a sentiment as if Wall-E was real.
The European Space Agency mission to the comet Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko did reach its target through a dizzying manoeuvre over a decade, and the lander Philae did manage to detach from the main probe Rosetta to land on the surface of the comet.
It is an achievement of monumental proportions. It is difficult enough to hit a planet with a probe, as the repeated attempts to land probes on Mars and Venus have shown for decades. To hit a small comet, the dimensions are 4.3 x 4.1 kilometres, is a major thing in other words, particularly since the comet is beyond the orbit of Jupiter.
So, for this reason, in this household there has been a space probe mood of late, with Mark reading everything about the mission, and yours truly caught up partly because it’s really interesting and partly because Mark is cute when he becomes so eager about things.
Then there was the trouble with the lander. Now, the main scientific instrument is the Rosetta spacecraft itself, and that one orbits around the comet. The lander was supposed to do a limited set of experiments on the surface. Still, when the lander bounced, and fell into the shade where its solar panels couldn’t catch enough sunlight, it felt a bit like watching the last moments of Wall-E.
ESA has generally been very smart about communicating the science, and to establish a feel about the mission. Particularly with the personification of the lander and the orbiting probe on social media using the hashtag #cometlanding.
For now, Philae is sleeping. It remains to be seen if the probe can be awakened again. As I understand it, the electronics need a certain amount of heat to work properly, and there’s uncertainty whether the lander can be awakened again because the lander will go into deep freeze.
But who knows, maybe the lander will dream in its sleep all alone on the comet as it hurtles toward the sun and its sunlight? Maybe it can wake up when the comet is closer to the sun?