For the first time in seven months, the comet lander Philae has sent a message to the European Space Agency, and although officials are delighted to finally get some news, they say that Philae’s stories don’t add up. They are demanding to know the truth about what the 11-year-old spacecraft has been doing all this time.
Upon initial contact on Sunday, Philae said it was “really sorry” it had not been in touch, but its battery was totally flat because there had been only darkness since November, soon after the lander was dropped on the comet 67P/C-G by the space probe Rosetta. ESA officials then demanded to know how — if the lander was in hibernation mode, as it claimed — it could possibly know it was dark the whole time and that its power unit had not been damaged, for example.
“Uhhhhhh, good question,” the lander responded.
After a series of furious communications with Philae, relayed through nearby Rosetta — which is older and more reliable — the lander blamed the lapse in contact on some shady characters it met on the comet just hours after arrival.
“67P is crazier than any of you can understand,” Philae said. “Comets are not just giant masses of dirt and ice. The temperature might be low, but they’re really hot, if you know what I mean.”
With their arms crossed, ESA officials reminded Philae that they’re not stupid, and that they’ve overseen dozens of successful space missions.
“You won’t even believe me if I tell you the truth,” Philae said. “So why should I bother? You never trust me.”
The lander then went silent for several hours, but with a little backstepping and coaxing, the scientists got Philae to continue.
“When I first got to the comet, there were already, like, 10 other landers there, hanging out in a probe den,” Philae said. “I said hello, because that’s what you programmed me to do. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”
“They were smoking space junk and told me to join them,” it said. “What was I supposed to say? ‘Sorry guys, I’ve travelled 317 million miles and my carbon fiber legs are totally cramped, but I ought to get straight to work.’ Who says those sorts of things? Not even Voyager 1 is that lame.”
When officials asked Philae about the condition of the expensive instruments it had been fitted with to analyze soil samples, measure gases, and take other readings, it said its battery was about to die. Before Philae cut off communications, Rosetta reported hearing other landers laughing and saying that Philae was “in deep shit now.”
“We’ve got a good idea of where Philae is, but we don’t know what it’s doing,” says Ulrike Tietz, an ESA engineer who has been calling for a “tough love” approach to dealing with the lander’s attitude. “If only we had taught Philae how to resist peer pressure, maybe we’d have been able to get a measurement of the stable isotope ratios on 67P we’ve always wanted.”
Blurry images taken from Rosetta show that Philae appears to have lost about 30 kilograms (66 pounds), and is sporting a tattoo on one of its cracked solar panels that says “Probe Deeper.”
ESA officials say they are considering trying to have Rosetta lure Philae into a rendezvous by promising some top-quality space junk, and having the much larger spacecraft take the belligerent little lander and send it on a course straight into the sun, which would serve as a lesson to future expensive landers who fail to follow orders.