Last week Philae, the little probe that could, was able to relay an unprecedented 57 hours worth of information from the surface of a comet 300 million miles away before its solar battery shut down. Because European Space Agency scientists had misjudged the hardness of Comet 67P’s surface, the probe was unable to anchor on the surface: it bounced and landed in the deep space equivalent of a ditch. Stuck in shade, it was unable to get enough light to recharge its solar cells. However, all is not lost; because the comet is currently headed toward the sun, the ESA thinks it is possible that an increasing amount of sunlight might be just the thing to blast Philae out of the darkness.
As the comet gets nearer to the sun, it gets warmer and releases jets of gas. ESA is hoping one of those jets will propel Philae out of the ditch. “It could be a natural way that it gets lifted up,” former Rosetta satellite manager Gerhard Schwehm said yesterday. “If a little activity starts there, then the chance that it comes off is fairly high.” Although Philae is about the size of a washing machine, gravity on the comet is 100,000 times less than on Earth, so Philae only has a relative weight of a piece of paper – light enough to be pushed out of the ditch. “Perhaps it was good that Philae didn’t fire the harpoons because if they would not have penetrated you might have had a much bigger problem,” Schwehm added.