Nov 15, 2014 08:32 PM EST
It's a $1.62 billion mission who's fighting against the clock. For more than a decade now, researchers have been hoping that the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta Mission would give them a better understand and an unseen view of what lies beneath the surface of a comet. And now that they're there, they fear that time is not on their side.
Travelling 310 million miles from Earth to its new home Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the Rosetta mission's Philae lander set universal records this week when it became the first spacecraft to touch down on the surface of a speeding comet. But after missing its intended landing spot, the ESA lost contact with Philae Wednesday morning when the lander touched down, but then bounced twice off of the rocky surface.
With all eyes on the Philae since Wednesday morning when communications were lost, researchers at the agency rejoiced Friday, Nov. 14, when transmissions began at 5:29pm ET and the ESA announced "Philae is still talking!"
"Against the odds, with no downward thruster and with the automated harpoon system having not worked, the intrepid Philae lander touched down a total of three times on the comet before coming to a final resting place on Wednesday" spokespersons from the ESA said in a press release on Friday, Nov. 14. "While the search for the final landing site is still ongoing, the lander is racing against the clock to meet as many of the core science goals as possible before the primary battery is exhausted."
According to images transmitted from the surface of the comet, researchers indicate that the spacecraft likely landed in what appears to be a shadow of a cliff on the rocky surface of Comet 67P. And while the communication stream is good news in the short term, the new landing site could pose great problems for the mission. As the Philae was intended to run primarily on solar energy, generated from panels fueling secondary batteries that'll likely never fill in the shade of a cliff, researchers from the ESA expect the probe's mission to end sometime Saturday afternoon. But they're hoping to gather as much information in the short time span as possible.
Equipped with 21 on-board instruments, the washing-machine-sized spacecraft will analyze the surface of the comet with thermal sensors, gas analyzers and even magnetic probes to give researchers as much of an in-depth view of life on the comet as they can gather in the limited window.
But while researchers are disappointed at the possibility of only being able to get such a small glimpse into the comet now, during a press conference early on Friday, ESA scientists continued to look to the future when they expect the probe will pass close enough to the sun to communicate an array of new information. While the ESA will likely have to wait until August of 2015, the team says that solar power will regain even if it's a long-term goal, and the Philae will complete its mission as intended - with only a few hiccups along the way.
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