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Philae hopes to communicate drilling results soon, but could it be its final hours?

Due to the lander’s position scientists are concerned about the battery supply.

Comet Landing Rosetta’s lander Philae as it is safely on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Source: AP

THE GOOD NEWS: The spacecraft that landed on a comet has begun drilling beneath the surface to see what secrets the celestial body can reveal.

The bad news: Scientists at the European Space Agency are anxiously hoping its batteries hold out long enough for them to get the mining data and adjust the spacecraft’s position.

It was a race against time today for the Philae lander, which on Wednesday became the first spacecraft to touch down on a comet. Since then it has sent astonishing images from the icy, dusty comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and generated some data from instruments such as one that measures temperatures.

Philae bounced twice on the comet before coming to rest Wednesday after two harpoons that should have anchored it to the surface failed to deploy. Controllers weren’t able to pinpoint its position, but photos indicate it’s next to a cliff that is largely blocking sunlight from reaching two of its three solar panels.

Tonight, the ESA tweeted about where the Philae lander is:

All this is taking place 311 million miles (500 million kilometers) from Earth on a comet hurtling 41,000 mph (66,000 kph) through space.

Material beneath the surface of the comet has remained almost unchanged for 4.5 billion years, making those mining samples a cosmic time capsule that scientists are eager to study.

Mission controllers said Philae was able to bore 25 centimeters (10 inches) into the comet to start collecting the samples, but it’s unclear whether it has enough power to deliver any information on them.

Comet Landing Philae's down-looking descent ROLIS imager when it was about 40 meters (131 feet) above the surface of Comet. Source: AP

The lander has an estimated 64 hours of battery power but has to rely on solar panels to generate electricity after that. Scientists hoped the batteries would still have some juice the next time the lander was due to make contact, late tonight. The agency said it would provide an update on that over the weekend.

Tonight, the lander tweeted:

If the batteries are still running and scientists can extract the scientific data from the craft, they will rotate the lander slightly so that it might capture more sunlight.

“That would increase the chance that, at a later stage, the lander could wake up again and start talking to us again,” Ulamec said.

After the batteries run out, Philae will remain on the comet in a hibernation mode for the coming months. The comet is on a 6 1/2-year elliptical orbit around the sun. Philae could wake up again if the comet passes the sun in such a way that its solar panels catch more light.

Meanwhile, the Rosetta — Philae’s mother ship, which is streaking through space in tandem with the comet — will use its 11 instruments to analyse the comet over the coming months.

Scientists hope the €1.3 billion project that was launched a decade ago will help them answer questions about the origins of the universe and life on Earth.

Read: Philae seems to be stuck under a cliff with one leg dangling in space>

TOUCHDOWN! European probe leaves its mothership and lands on comet for first time ever>

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Associated Press

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