I thought I would give a brief update on some of the results that have been trickling through from the Philae lander, which I blogged about here. The news has tended to concentrate on the fact that the lander had to power-down after some 60 hours because the solar panels were not getting enough sunlight, which might lead people to think that the Philae mission was not a success. But, in fact, it achieved nearly all of its core science goals, something the media have sadly largely ignored.
The reason the solar panels are not getting enough sunlight is because the lander is stuck in what appears to be a deep chasm, and so is only getting just over 1 hour of sunlight a day instead of the 6-hours that it should have got. When it landed, Philae bounced and ended up in an unfortunate location on the surface up against a “wall”. However, the saying that “every cloud has a silver lining” is true in this case for one of the instruments on-board Philae, namely an instrument called ‘Ptolemy’.
This instrument has been trying to analyse the composition of the surface of the comet. When the Philae lander bounced it threw up material from the surface, and Ptolemy was able to analyse this cloud of surface material, making its job probably easier than had this bounce not happened. What it has found in that cometary surface material is fascinating, clear signs of complex carbon molecules, the building blocks of life.
This does not mean that comets brought life to Earth, although it does not rule it out either. But, it does show that such complex carbon-based molecules, essential building blocks of life, are present on objects like comets. Philae has conducted a number of other experiments in its brief 60-hour time on the comet’s surface, and the results from those experiments are under analysis. Scientists who have worked on Philae are also hopeful that the lander will wake back up as the comet gets closer to the Sun, as the solar panels may start getting more sunlight. We shall have to wait and see, but we also need to remember that Philae was just part of the much larger Rosetta mission, and Rosetta will carry on studying the comet for about another year covering the time it will get closest to the Sun and then start its journey back to the outer Solar system.