Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft has finally spotted the tiny lander Philae stuck in a dark crack on the surface of its comet home — the first glimpse since the robot lab crash-landed in 2014, ground controllers said on Monday.
The European Space Agency (ESA) released a photograph of the washing machine-sized robot lab on the comet’s rough surface, one leg thrust into the air.
The image, captured with the Rosetta orbiter’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on Friday last week, were downloaded two days later — just weeks before the official end of the ground-breaking science mission to unravel the mysteries of life on Earth.
“With only a month left of the Rosetta mission, we are so happy to have finally imaged Philae and to see it in such amazing detail,” Cecilia Tubiana of the OSIRIS camera team, the first person to see the images, said in a statement.
The 1.3-billion-euro ($1.4-billion) mission, saw Rosetta launched into space in March 2004, with Philae riding piggyback.
The pair travelled some 6.5 billion kilometres to enter comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s orbit in August 2014.
Three months later, Rosetta sent the 100-kilogramme probe down to the comet surface, starting a deep-space saga closely followed around the world via cartoon recreations of the pioneering pair.
Philae bounced several times after its harpoons failed to fire into the comet surface, and ended up in a ditch shadowed from the Sun’s battery-replenishing rays.
Until now, nobody knew exactly where.
“This remarkable discovery comes at the end of a long, painstaking search,” said Rosetta mission manager Patrick Martin.
“We were beginning to think that Philae would remain lost forever. It is incredible that we have captured this at the final hour.”
Philae’s nail-biting exploits earned it a loyal Twitter following.
It managed to send home data from 60 hours of experiments, before its batteries failed and it entered standby mode.
The robot woke up in June 2015, and sent eight messages to Earth before falling permanently silent in July 2015.