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Rosetta Spacecraft: Comet probe team faces a race against time after rough landing

By Linda Stewart

Scientists have been forced to rethink their plans for the probe that made an historic touchdown on a comet yesterday, after it bounced hundreds of metres from its landing site and ended up on its side at the foot of a cliff.

The spacecraft is in perfect operational order after becoming the first to land on a comet, but engineers from the European Space Agency (ESA) say it is almost vertical with "one foot in the open air".

Philae is thought to have come to rest in an area initially rejected by ESA because of its large boulders and poorer illumination.

The successful landing of space probe Philae on the comet sparked jubilation across the globe - including at Queen's University Belfast, whose scientists investigated the comet - but that was soon replaced with anxiety after the lander went AWOL for a time.

It emerged that Philae's harpoons failed to secure it to the surface and the probe bounced twice after landing, recording three separate landing times. Following first contact with the comet, it rose back off the surface for almost two hours and then bounced again before spinning to rest.

Philae has now relayed the first photos taken from the surface of a comet back to Earth, but the limited level of solar energy may force a rethink of the investigations it carries out in the days to come while it still has power in its batteries. "This has an impact on our energy budget" one scientist said. "The lander is relying on solar energy and we're getting one-and-a-half hours of sunlight when we expected six or seven."

ESA is considering moving Philae to a better position using its landing gear, but any movement could dislodge it from the surface or tip it onto its back.

Solar power is essential if Philae is to survive longer than its 60-hour battery life. Lead scientist Jean Pierre Bibring said the most fundamental investigation would be to analyse organic molecules on the comet. This would test the theory that comets seeded life on Earth.

To analyse these molecules, Philae must get samples into its instruments, either by sniffing or drilling. Drilling will be risky as any motion could topple the lander, so ESA will only try this towards the end of the 60-hour mission.

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