After Bouncy Landing, Philae Lander At Rest On Comet

After Bouncy Landing, Philae Lander At Rest On Comet

10:31am Nov 14, 2014

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Researchers have re-established contact with a probe sitting on the surface of a comet hundreds of millions of miles from Earth. The European Space Agency successfully landed the probe yesterday. It's the first time humanity has ever touched down on a comet, but shortly after landing, scientists lost track of the probe. It appears that it bounced off the rugged surface and came down somewhere else.

As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, its position is now precarious.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The lander called Philae is about the size of a washing machine. It was supposed to land on a flat spot and it did. Unfortunately, it never fired its harpoons, which would've anchored it to the surface so instead of staying put it bounced.

STEPHAN ULAMEC: It was a huge leap, probably around one kilometer distance.

BRUMFIEL: Stephan Ulamec manages the lander. He says Philae's first bounce lasted nearly two hours. The leap was so big because gravity on the comet's surface is small. The lander traveled so far that right now its exact location on the comet is a mystery.

ULAMEC: We have a better understanding now how we got there. We still do not really know where (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Based on pictures the lander has sent back, one thing is clear - it's in a tight spot. It appears to be tipped on its side at the bottom of a cliff and that's a problem because the cliff casts a shadow and Philae is solar powered.

Koen Geurts is with the German Space Agency. He says Philae is not getting the sunlight it needs.

KOEN GEURTS: We're receiving about one and a half hours of sunlight with respect to the six or seven that we were aiming for.

BRUMFIEL: Philae does have some battery power but the juice will run out after 60 hours.

GEURTS: Unfortunately this is not the situation that we were hoping for.

BRUMFIEL: Still, 60 hours of science from the surface of a comet? Jessica Sunshine says that's pretty amazing.

JESSICA SUNSHINE: Lack of everything being perfect is not a failure.

BRUMFIEL: Sunshine is at the University of Maryland and she's worked on NASA missions that have flown past comets.

SUNSHINE: I'm in awe of what they've accomplished. I mean, they really should be extremely impressed and proud of what has gone on. It’s really miraculous.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMET'S MAGNETIC FIELD)

BRUMFIEL: That's the sound of the comet's magnetic field. It was just sent home by Philae's companion, a spacecraft called Rosetta that's orbiting the comet. Even if Philae's life is short Rosetta will keep traveling with the comet for months as its path takes it closer to the sun. Scientists will be watching as the icy surface warms and begins to blow away, forming a long tail. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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