Cameras aboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta orbiter have spotted the Philae lander in a dark crack on the jagged surface of a comet.
“We were beginning to think that Philae would remain lost forever,” Patrick Martin, ESA’s Rosetta mission manager, said. “It is incredible we have captured this at the final hour.”
The ESA plans to send the Rosetta orbiter to the comet’s surface in a controlled descent to end its 12-year space journey.
The Philae lander appeared in images taken Friday, when the Rosetta orbiter came within 1.7 miles of Comet 67-P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s surface.
For the first time, scientists were able to clearly see the main body of the lander and two of its three legs.
Researchers said knowing the precise location of Philae is not just good for comet science, it’s also an emotional relief.
“It’s a huge psychological bonus to finally know where it is,” said Matt Taylor, Rosetta project scientist.
The Rosetta orbiter was launched March 2, 2004, and spent the next 10 years traveling a convoluted path through 4 billion miles of space to rendezvous with the speeding comet.
Fastened to Rosetta’s side throughout its long journey was the small Philae lander, designed to be the first manmade instrument to land on the surface of a comet and survive.
The orbiter released Philae on Nov. 2, 2014, just a few weeks after it arrived at the comet.
But the landing did not go as planned. Two harpoons designed to tether the lander to the comet did not deploy properly, causing it to bounce. The lander flew for two hours before eventually settling in what was an unknown location.
Using radio signals sent between Rosetta and Philae, scientists were able to determine that the lander’s location was in a small area just a few hundred feet across on the smaller of the comet’s two lobes. However, the precise location continued to remain a mystery.
The Philae lander is 3 three feet wide, making it difficult to spot on a comet.
“We really needed resolution that was only a few centimeters per pixel to see it,” Taylor said. “And that’s what we finally have.”