The Philae lander may have been spotted on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P) by astronomers using cameras aboard the Rosetta spacecraft. The images are causing controversy among astronomers and the general public, as some believe the lander has been found, while others claim the vehicle is still missing.
Philae attempted a soft landing on the comet on Nov. 12, 2014, but the anchors meant to secure the lander to the comet failed to penetrate the surface of the icy body. The lander bounced off the frozen surface and landed in an unknown region of the comet. Since that time, mission controllers have attempted to find the vehicle, which has remained hidden, at least until now.
A bright dot seen in one image of an area of the comet which did not appear in earlier images is the best candidate yet for the final resting spot for Philae.
The comet orbits around the sun once every 6.6 years. As the icy body gets closer to our parent stars, program managers hope the solar cells aboard the craft will start to collect enough energy to bring Philae back to life. Even if the lander is still operational, it is unlikely the craft will survive the heat of its close approach with the sun.
European Space Agency engineers and scientists took data from the Consert instrument aboard Philae, recorded during its bumpy landing. They then combined this with information on the spacecraft's last known trajectory to determine where it may be placed. Researchers believe the vessel may have ended its bouncing in the shadow of a cliff, although the exact position remains unknown.
The best estimates place Philae somewhere within a strip measuring 52-by-525 feet. The small size of the lander, combined with its likely location in the shadow of a cliff, makes finding the lander challenging. Most of the bright spots seen in the region have been eliminated from consideration as Philae's last landing spot, although one has emerged as a favorite among many researchers.
"This bright spot is visible on two different images taken in December 2014, clearly indicating that it is a real feature on the surface of the comet, not a detector artefact or moving foreground dust speck," Philippe Lamy, a member of the OSIRIS imager team, said.
Critics of the idea contend that the bright area seen in the photographs represents light-colored material freshly exposed on the surface of the icy body.
"The relative lack of significant illumination in this region at the time argues that such changes are unlikely, but they cannot be completely ruled out," the European Space Agency reported on its web site.
Final conformation of the nature of the bright spot will likely only come if mission planners bring the Rosetta orbiter closer to the comet, to obtain higher-resolution photos. However, as the comet approaches the sun, material is rising from the surface, which could make such a maneuver unsafe.