The Philae lander has begun drilling operations on comet 67P despite scientists’ fears that using the equipment could dislodge the probe.
After Philae’s harpoons failed to secure it to the surface of the comet during its landing Thursday the craft bounced a kilometre wide of its intended landing spot and is currently resting on its side at the foot of a cliff with slowly depleting power.
The incredibly weak gravity on the comet (several hundred thousand times weaker than that on Earth) means that any physical movement from Philae could tip it onto its back or even launch it into space.
However, as scientists have now exhausted all safe experiments possible, instructions to activate the drill have been uploaded to the craft with a collective decision to “hang the possible risk,” in the words of University of Oxford professor Christ Lintott.
Lintott tweeted that the decision was “edge of the seat science” with the ESA team also considering the possibility of 'bouncing' Philae into a new, more favourable position tomorrow using its landing equipment.
Although the probe has already retrieved valuable data from its other on-board instruments (scientist say bout 80 to 90 per cent of what was planned), the drilling experiment is still the centrepiece of its work: searching for organic compounds in the sub-surface ice could answer many important questions about our Universe, including perhaps the origin of life on Earth.
However, even if the drilling is successful, Philae's shady position at the foot of a cliff means that the long-term viability of the project is in doubt. The lander is only receiving one and a half hours' of sunlight compared to the six or seven hours that were planned for and its internal batteries are running out.
In pictures: European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
In pictures: European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
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Image of Comet 67P/CG taken by the Philae lander from a distance of approximately 3km from the surface
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Rosetta's lander Philae took this parting shot of its mothership shortly after separation
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Parting shot of the Philae lander after separation, captured by one of Rosetta's cameras
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A technician celebrates after the successful landing of the Philae lander, in the control room at the ESA headquarters in Darmstadt
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Scientists celebrate at a mission observation centre in Toulouse, southern France as they receive information that Philae has landed on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet
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Astronomer Klim Ivanovych Churyumov, who discovered the comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 1969, reacts after the successful landing of the Philae lander on the comet
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A model demonstrates how the landing device Philae, of the space probe Rosetta, stands on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at the press center of the satellite control center of the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany
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An artist impression of Rosetta's lander Philae on the surface of comet
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Picture taken on October 28 by the navigation camera on Rosetta shows the boulder-strewn neck region of comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It was captured from a distance of 9.7 km from the center of the comet
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Picture taken on October 24 shows a raised plateau on the larger lobe of the comet
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The probe is supposed to fly to a comet and put down a small laboratory on the top of it
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A scientist from the European Space Agency with an airworthy copy of space probe 'Rosetta' in the control center in Darmstadt, Germany
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Maneuvers designed for the actual space probe are simulated with the replica. 'Rosetta' will be woken up from an energy saving hibernation after 957 days
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A European Space Agency employee sits in the control room for the Rosetta mission in Darmstadt, Germany
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Scientists at the European Space Agency are expecting their comet-chasing probe Rosetta to wake from almost three years of hibernation
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Europe's Rosetta probe on a NASA mission
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NASA is participating in the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, whose goal is to observe one such space-bound icy dirt ball from up close for months on end
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An impression of the Philae lander
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ESA probe Rosetta with Mars in the background. The three-tonne probe blasted off aboard an an Ariane V rocket from Kourou, French Guiana in 2004
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Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the spacecraft measures 32 m across including the solar arrays, while the comet nucleus is thought to be about 4 km wide
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The spacecraft, festooned with 25 instruments between its lander and orbiter (including three from NASA), is programmed to 'wake up' from hibernation
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An Ariane V carrying the three-tonne probe Rosetta blasting off from Kourou, beginning a decade-long quest to hunt a comet in the depths of the Solar System and shadow it around the Sun in a bid to tease out secrets of how life began on Earth
“We are coming now to the end so we are taking more and more risks,” head of mission operations Paolo Ferri told ScienceMag.
Even if Philae powers down in the next day scientists say there's a chance it could be revived as 67P speeds closer to the Sun and shadows shift, hopefully putting the lander's solar panels back into the open.
During a press conference at 13.00 GMT today, ESA scientist also confirmed that due to the orbit of Rosetta they'd not be able to contact the lander until 23.00 GMT tonight - when more information about the success of the drilling operation will be available.Reuse content