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The Comet Lander Philae Is Stuck in the Dark and Might Die

But it’s already collected a buttload of groundbreaking data.
November 14, 2014, 4:50pm

The lander that  touched down on a comet for the first time in human history this week, Philae, is literally between a rock and a hard place. Scientists at the Lander Control Center estimate Philae is laying on its side, wedged next to a cliff and surrounded by rocks after it skidded over the surface of the comet before landing.

This is less than ideal because it means Philae's solar panels, which were expected to receive 6-7 hours of sunlight per day, are only getting about an hour and a half of sunshine every 24 hours.

"We're on the ground—we're just really unlucky—in a corner, surrounded by rocks," said Valentina Lommats, one of the team scientists, during a update on the  European Space Agency's livestream Friday.

There will be a chance to communicate with Philae again late tonight. The team is hopeful there will be enough power left in the lander's primary and secondary batteries to connect, but there's a chance it could be too late.

"We're hoping to get contact again this evening, this would be fantastic, but it's not secured. Maybe the battery will be empty before we get contact again," said Stefan Ulamec, lander manager, during the livestream.

If they get lucky and there is enough juice left to connect, there are a few options to break Philae free and try to get to a sunnier patch on the comet in order to charge the batteries. They could simply rotate the largest solar panel to try to collect more sunlight, but they're brainstorming more creative ideas, too.

One option would be to run the landing gear in an effort to push Philae away from the rocks. Another would be to refire Philae's harpoons to try to get it to roll into a better spot.

The good news is, no matter what happens next, Philae has already collect an impressive amount of groundbreaking data. The lander send back some stunning images, like this panorama from the surface of the comet:

A panorama of Philae's view from the surface of the comet. Image: European Space Agency

Philae's drill and hammer, which measures surface strength, have both been activated and are both producing data that can hopefully be beamed back to Earth.

Some of the information has already been sent back and is being analyzed, and the team aims to get even more Friday night during the link.

Matt Taylor, a team scientist who started out the livestream apologizing for a controversial wardrobe choice earlier this week, said there's amazing work that's already been achieved.

"We're on the cutting edge of science. Science is being done. We haven't got any results yet but just wait and hang in there," he said.

Though the team originally dreamed Philae might stay active until March 2015, they had planned to complete their research within the first few hours, so they've already accomplished a great deal. And even if Philae's batteries are drained before Friday's connection, there's still a chance the lander could wake up next summer when the comet gets closer to the Sun.

As Matt told us, the best is yet to come.

"Stay tuned," he said. "It's beyond words."