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Europe’s Solar-Powered Satellite Imperils 10-Year Space Mission

Solar energy is a great way to power deep space probes. That is, unless they somehow get caught in the shade and run out of battery.

That’s unfortunately what happened to Philae, a European deep space comet probe, after it got stuck in the shadowy depths of a comet it landed on.

When the first photos from the probe Philae were received by the European Space Agency a major problem was revealed: the probe had landed in the shadows of huge cliffs that are preventing sunlight from reaching its solar panels.

After a 10-year expedition and huge amounts of funding, the Philae probe launched from the unmanned Rosetta spacecraft may not be able to deliver the results of its mission of drilling into a comet and transmitting the results back to Earth.

Despite meticulous planning and testing, the Philae probe did not exactly have a smooth landing on the comet’s surface. It actually bounced off the comet on its initial impact, then finally settled in a shadowy area that have further bungled scientists’ plans.

ESA says the probe has enough battery power to send images and the results of a drill down into the comet back to Earth, but once battery power runs out the probe’s solar panels won’t be able to get enough sunlight to get it off the comet.

“This will be exciting because we’re not sure if the batteries will have enough power to transmit this data,” Stefan Ulamec with the German Aerospace Center, told Reuters.

To make matters worse, an ESA command for the Philae probe to go into battery-saving mode did not go through. Now ESA scientists are looking for ways to get the probe back into the sun’s light.

One option is to “hop” the craft out from under the comet’s rocky cliffs. Another is to rotate the probe’s solar panels, but that would also require getting it out of its current position. But Reuters notes that ESA will only try to get the probe out if it has enough battery to transmit drilling results back to Earth.

Philae has enough battery to last 64 hours, reports USA Today, and is equipped with enough solar panels to extend its battery life for an hour each day. But being caught in the shade means it only gets about 1.5 hours of sunlight per day and not the 6 to 7 hours needed to power the probe.

“The solar arrays are not really illuminated, so we don’t know how long we will operate,” Rosetta mission manager Fred Jansen told USA Today.

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