Comet probe in race against time

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Robot lab Philae drilled into its host comet Friday with just hours of battery left, but may lose power before it can transmit results of a much-anticipated attempt to probe below the surface, mission scientists said.

Charged with 60 hours of onboard power, the lander bounced twice after initial touchdown Wednesday, settling at an angle in a crevice in an unknown location, shadowed from sunlight that could potentially have extended its battery life.

With its energy supply fast winding down lander manager Stephan Ulamec said the drill was “started” on Friday, but contact between Philae and its orbiting mothership Rosetta was lost soon thereafter.

There are two communications windows per day, the next is due to open 2100 GMT, by when Philae may have entered hibernation.

“Maybe the battery will be empty before we get contact again” to upload the data, which Philae transmits to Earth via Rosetta, said Ulamec, who urged onlookers to “cross your fingers”.

“If we don’t receive any data it’s probably because the battery is flat. “It was not certain the drill had actually pierced the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is racing towards the Sun at 18 kilometres (11 miles) per second.

Samples from its drill, one of 10 onboard experiments, had been among the most highly anticipated results from Philae’s mission, with scientists hoping for clues to the formation of the Solar System and even the appearance of life on Earth.

But mission controllers underlined the exploration has already been a massive success, saying Philae’s rough start has not stopped it from experimenting more or less as planned and relaying valuable data to Earth.

Washing machine-sized Philae landed on the comet after a nail-biting seven-hour, 20-km descent from its orbiting mothership Rosetta, which had travelled more than a decade and 6.5 billion kilometres (four billion miles) to get there.