Data from the Philae lander shows that the comet it landed on has an extremely hard surface that is covered in dust.
The Philae lander, the first spacecraft ever to land on a comet, used its MUPUS probe to hammer into the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko "but was unable to make more than a few millimetres of progress even at the highest power level of the hammer motor," the European Space Agency (ESA) reported Tuesday on its blog for the Rosetta mission, of which Philae is a part.
Data from Philae suggest the comet’s surface is covered in a layer of dust 10 to 20 centimetres thick, on top of strong ice, or ice and dust mixtures, the Rosetta team says.
"If we compare the data with laboratory measurements, we think that the probe encountered a hard surface with strength comparable to that of solid ice," said Tilman Spohn, principal investigator for MUPUS, on the blog.
In addition to MUPUS, Rosetta also has a drill called SD2 that was activated. It can theoretically drill more than 20 centimetres into the surface and take samples that can be analyzed using ovens, microscopes and other instruments inside Philae.
Organic molecules sniffed
On Monday, the German Aerospace Center DLR, where scientists are monitoring and controlling Philae, reported that all the steps to transport a sample from the drill to the oven were activated. The sample analyzer, called COSAC "worked as planned," but scientists didn't know whether a surface sample from the comet had actually been analyzed.
They did report that COSAC "was able to 'sniff' the atmosphere and detect the first organic molecules after landing." Organic molecules, which are based on carbon, include many of the building blocks of life. However, scientists had not yet identified which organic molecules had been detected.
ESA said data from the Rosetta spacecraft that is orbiting the comet shows that overall the solid part of the comet – its nucleus – has a low density. That suggests the inside of the comet is more porous than its hard exterior.
The MUPUS probe also contains instruments designed to measure temperature and acceleration. Some of the data could not be gathered because it was in Philae's harpoons, which didn't fire properly. But the probe did measure temperatures of -153 and -163 C after landing.
Philae made its historic landing on the comet on Nov. 12, and managed to send a couple of loads of data 500 million kilometres back to Earth before running out of battery power and shutting down for now. The lander is expected to wake up again in the spring of 2015, as the comet orbits closer to the sun, allowing more sunlight to hit Philae's solar panels. At that point, its instruments, including MUPUS, may be able to collect more data.
In the meantime, the Rosetta spacecraft, which deployed Philae, continues to orbit the comet and collect data.
A previous version of this story said the MUPUS instrument was used to drill into the surface. In fact, MUPUS hammers into the surface, and the SD2 instrument is used for drilling.Nov 18, 2014 11:57 AM ET