When I saw these images the hair on the back of my neck stood up. These photos may not look like much at first, but when you realize you’re seeing the surface of a comet hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth, and can see objects as small as a centimeter across … well, I hope your brain gets that same electric shock mine did.
The first time. Two malfunctions (a cold-gas jet system designed to push the lander down onto the comet’s surface didn’t fire, and neither did the harpoons meant to anchor Philae to the comet) occurred, and instead of landing and staying secured to the surface, Philae bounced high into space, only to land again, bounce again, and finally skid (that is, make multiple shallow, short bounces) to a stop many hours later, and many hundreds of meters from its intended destination.
It fell to rest on its side, shadowed by an overhang of ice and rock. Contact became intermittent, and a few days later the battery fell below levels needed to keep the probe awake. It went into hibernation.
Then, months later, it woke up! The solar panels had collected enough energy to turn the lander back on. Contact was again intermittent, and the future of the lander’s lifespan is still unclear. But it performed like a champ, taking images, spectra, and other measurements that have returned unprecedented knowledge about the comet back to us on Earth.
The European Space Agency has just released some fantastic close-up images taken by the Philae lander of the comet #67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This release came out along with a passel of scientific papers (in Science magazine behind a paywall; here’s a summary) about results from the Rosetta probe’s lander, too.