Coffee Break

“Hello Earth! Can you hear me?”

On Saturday night at 10.28pm, a little probe on a comet 300 million miles away woke up and phoned home.

It’s a story akin to ET, Wall-E, and every other heartwarming alien-themed family film.

Philae is the comet lander that made headlines when it touched down on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 12th November last year, after a staggering ten-year journey. This victory, which made a lot of physicists cry on the news (and in a strange turn of events led to a feminist outcry over a scientist’s choice of shirt), was short-lived, when it was discovered that Philae had landed in the shadow of a cliff, where its solar panels were useless. After sixty hours, the on-board batteries ran out. Philae fell silent.

For seven months, the probe sat on the icy surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (try saying that three times fast), alone and in the dark. One can only imagine the thoughts that ran through its scared little processors. I’m freezing my nuts and bolts off here and I waited ten years for this nonsense?, probably.

But on Saturday night, something unexpected happened: Philae woke up. For 85 seconds the probe communicated with the German Aerospace Centre, DLR. 85 seconds isn’t long (something I was always telling my ex) but it was enough for Philae to send 300 data packages to Earth via its mothership Rosetta, which is in orbit of the comet.

There are still 8,000 data packages stored in Philae’s memory, but scientists hope the probe will wake up again – and when it does, it will send them back to Earth.

In the meantime, Philae is still stuck on a freezing comet millions of miles away – and no one’s sure exactly where on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko it is. But scientists are remaining optimistic, saying that if everything had gone to plan, the probe would have probably overheated by the time it came nearer to the sun. Now, it might be able to perform experiments when the comet is closest to the sun, which is apparently “the most interesting stage in a comet’s life”. Well, we’ll take their word for it.

It’s unsure when Philae will phone home again, but it’s expected to be several days away. Scientists are then hoping to drill into the comet to learn more about its physical makeup. It might be a long time coming, but the findings could well be worth it. It’s believed that comets like 67P brought water to our planet billions of years ago, so Philae might find out more about the origins of life itself.

Who on Earth knows what Philae might discover? Probably no one on Earth