Scientists at European Space Agency (ESA) are deliberating whether to send Rosetta spacecraft closer to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (C-G)’s surface – just six kilometer above the patch where the Philae probe landed in a bid to pinpoint its exact location.
Since Philae’s batteries ran out just days after a bumpy landing on the comet in November last year, the lander has been silent and its exact location remains a mystery.
ESA’s deviation from Rosetta mission’s plans for locating Philae means that the Rosetta spacecraft, with limited fuel, will have scrap another flyby that was scheduled so that it would have a shadow-free look at the comet to reveal unprecedented detail. This flyby is scheduled for Valentine’s Day next month and Rosetta will not get another chance of a flyby until 2016, once the comet has swung around the Sun and headed back out to space.
“If we are going to change plans to target looking for the lander, that impacts some of the goals we had planned,” said Joel Parker, research astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado quotes Nature.
ESA’s deliberation means that scientists are currently weighing the option of sticking to Rosetta’s other science goals and odds of finding Philae through this close flyby.
The Philae lander is just one-meter-wide and attempts at deducing the location of the lander currently puts it in a 20-metre by 200-metre patch. Rosetta tried looking for the lander from 20 meter above the surface, but its attempts have failed as the high-resolution camera isn’t providing with enough details at this distance.
ESA scientists say that finding Philae is not just about closure as once they are able to precisely locate the lander, they will be able to predict how likely Philae is to come back to life. Further, they will also be able to analyse the data already send by the lander with greater accuracy if its location is known.
The craft may wake up in the coming months as the comet nears the Sun and its solar panels begin to receive more light.
“Planning for something like that is a lot of work. It would be good to know if it [will happen],” Parker noted.
Scientists know that altering Rosetta’s trajectory and schedule, which is laid out precisely several months before, would demand huge efforts. Quite a few are of the opinion that even this close a flyby might not reveal the exact location of Philae as it is lodged somewhere in a shady position at a tilting angle.
The final word rests with ESA. According to the agency’s manager for the mission, Fred Jansen, a decision is likely to be reached soon.