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Rosetta Images Show Philae Lander Bouncing Across Comet

Image: Philae's bounces
This series of images captured over a 30-minute period by the Rosetta spacecraft's OSIRIS camera shows the Philae lander's journey as it approached and then rebounded from its first touchdown on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov. 12. The time of each of image is marked on the corresponding insets and is in GMT. A comparison of the touchdown area shortly before and after first contact with the surface is also provided. Rosetta imagery has not yet revealed where the lander came to rest after two bounces. These images were taken when Rosetta was roughly 9.6 miles (15.5 kilometers) from the comet's surface. ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team

When the European Space Agency's Philae lander descended to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko last week, the Rosetta spacecraft's OSIRIS camera was watching from almost 10 miles above. Now a poignant series of images tracks Philae's double rebound — with a parting shot that shows the lander in mid-bounce.

After bouncing twice, Philae settled onto the comet's shadowed surface and operated for almost 57 hours before its batteries ran out. The lander's current location doesn't show up on the OSIRIS imagery released Monday, but the Rosetta mission's managers are confident that it will eventually be spotted.

Lander manager Stephan Ulamec is also confident that, at some point during Rosetta's mission, Philae "will wake up again, and we can achieve contact" once more. As Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko nears the sun, there's a good chance that Philae will soak up enough solar power to recharge its batteries and wake up from hibernation. That's most likely to happen next spring, Ulamec told The Associated Press.

The readings that Philae and Rosetta sent back to Earth before it shut down indicate that the comet surface is harder than expected — which would explain the bounces. Philae was supposed to fire an upward-pointing thruster and shoot out a pair of harpoons to keep it stuck to its initial landing spot, but those systems didn't work as planned.

If Philae wakes up, scientists should be able to confirm whether the lander successfully drilled out a sample of the comet's ice for analysis. Studying the chemistry of a comet's nucleus could provide unprecedented insights into the nature of the stuff from which the solar system was made.