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Long-lost lander located in a comet’s crack

Image: Philae lander
A close-up shows the 3-foot-wide Philae lander from a distance of 1.7 miles. (Credit: ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team / UPD / LAM / IAA / SSO / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA)

After almost two years’ of searching, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft has shown scientists what happened to the Philae lander when itbounced onto the surface of a comet – and why it went out of contact.

The answer to the mystery comes less than a month before the $1.4 billion Rosetta mission’s end.

Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera spotted the boxy, 3-foot-wide Philae lander stuck in a dark crack on Comet 67/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, more than 420 million miles from Earth.

The comet has been the object of Rosetta’s study since August 2014. Philae was pushed out from the main spacecraft and descended to the surface that November. The lander was supposed to beam up a stream of data about the comet’s composition. It did provide three days’ worth of data, but then the solar-powered probe fell silent.

Rosetta’s scientists determined that the lander had bounced on the surface, and spent months analyzing radio data and imagery from the main spacecraft in an attempt to figure out where it ended up. They assumed that Philae had fallen someplace dark where it couldn’t recharge its batteries.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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