The Philae lander, which made history last week by becoming the first man made object to set down on a comet (now the seventh celestial body humankind has touched), may have just gone into sleep mode for an indeterminate amount of time, but that doesn’t mean the mission was a wash. Even before launching the lander, the Rosetta probe was broadcast images back to Earth, and now the European Space Agency (ESA) has released some of these, and they’re stunning.
In the weeks leading up to unleashing Philae, Rosetta maintained an orbit around Comet 69P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. While that is a rather impressive feat on its own, it was able to send back a number of images of the surface, giving us our best look ever at what a comet looks like on the ground level. The pictures show a rocky, craggy landscape that looks barren and desolate, but also beautiful in high contrast black and white.
This steep rocky cliff sits near the neck of the comet, and gives you a good idea of the contrast between the rough and smooth portions of the comet.
On the surface there are wide, expansive areas that are relatively flat, as the one you see in this image. That giant boulder near the top left of the frame is named Cheops after the famous pyramids at Giza in Egypt. It is 147 feet across and 82 feet tall.
While there are large open spaces, there are also these massive, rough ridges that look a lot like mountain ranges.
This view, again taken of the neck area of 67P, shows another look at the rocky, jagged cliff walls that you will encounter, as well as boulders scattered around the surface. Piles of rocks and debris form as the comet gradually erodes.
When it landed on the surface of 67P on Wednesday, Philae’s harpoons never deployed after it touched down. As a result it never became properly anchored and bounced around, finally coming to rest under a rock outcropping in the shadows. This is problematic because the lander requires six to seven hours of sunlight on its solar panels in order to maintain function.
Unfortunately, it only got approximately 90 minutes, and went into sleep mode. It’s possible that, once the comet comes closer to the sun—it will get as close as it will come next August—there may be more light to be had and it will wake up, but we’ll have to wait and see. It did, however, have the chance to take and analyze some samples, finding carbon-based molecules, which could hold the key to discovering the origins of life on this planet. Which isn’t half bad all things considered