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Awakened Philae lander could be working on comet surface again next week

After hibernating through winter and spring, the Philae probe is finally awake and could be ready to resume experiments soon.

The real Philae is probably a little dustier right now than this artist's conception. ESA

The European Space Agency's Philae lander awoke at its resting spot on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Saturday and sent a message home to Earth via its Rosetta spacecraft, the Philae's mothership, for the first time since last year. After receiving a second communication from Philae on Sunday and beginning to evaluate the data sent back, mission controllers are now looking forward to being able to resume experiments from the comet's surface.

Sunday's communication with Philae was relatively weak and unstable, but controllers were able to get some data down from the lander. They told Agence France Presse that at least a 15-minute communication window is needed to transmit the command for the lander to resume experiments. So far, the recent transmissions from the comet's surface have been less than 2 minutes long.

But prospects for Philae's future seem bright, with word coming Monday from Germany's space agency that Philae is warming up and able to charge its batteries thanks to receiving at least three hours of sunlight per day, more than double what engineers had been expecting until now.

This is the first news of Philae since it was dropped off last November on the kidney-shaped comet. It took 10 years for the probe, about the size of a dishwasher, to make the historic journey. And it took only 60 hours for its battery to die after the Philae bounce-landing in a shaded location on the comet's cold, jagged surface.

Ultimately, Philae's controllers are hopeful that enough energy and communications capability will be restored to the lander that it will be able to drill into the comet to really get a sense of what the celestial object is made of. The data it's collecting is the closest examination of comets ever recorded.

"What we're really curious about is what the comet looks like on the inside, that's where the real treasure chest is," ESA science adviser Mark McCaughrean told AFP. "That's the material left over from the birth of the solar system, which is the real game here."

For now though, Philae's controllers plan to start slowly getting the groggy lander back up to speed.

"First, the non-mechanical instruments will be used -- that is, instruments that do not drill or hammer," German Philae Lander Project Leader Stephan Ulamec said.

Those instruments also consume little energy and only send small amounts of data to Earth, kind of like how some us have to do morning stretches and can only speak in single syllables when we first wake up.

Comet 67P will reach its closest point to the sun in August before it and Philae are flung back out into deep space. Mission managers are hopeful that Philae's instruments can get up and running in a week or so to take advantage of that window.

Good luck Philae. Time to chug that solar power latte and get to work.