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Rosetta spacecraft expected to ride comet into the sunset

The European Space Agency has decided to extend its Rosetta expedition to the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by nine months, at which point the spacecraft will most likely be landed on the comet’s surface.

After being launched in 2004, the Rosetta spacecraft and its comet probe — the Philae Lander — spent a decade coursing through space, looping around Mars, Earth and the Sun, until they reached the 67P comet in August 2014. Since then, the mission’s life has been a bit dramatic — such as when senior mission scientist Matt Taylor wore a sexist shirt during an early interview or when the Philae lander’s anchor harpoon failed to penetrate the comet in November. The lander subsequently went on a “pogo stick” adventure — bouncing across the space rock until it landed in an unknown location under the shadow of a cliff where it couldn’t receive enough sunlight to charge its solar batteries. After a seven-month hibernation, the lander “woke up” on June 14.

Rosetta sails 11 miles from the surface of 67P comet in search for the Philae lander on December 13, 2014. Photo by European Space Agency/Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

Rosetta sails 11 miles from the surface of 67P comet in search for the Philae lander on December 13, 2014. Photo by European Space Agency/Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

Despite the hiccups, the mission has made a number of discoveries, including the revelation that most of Earth’s water likely came from asteroids and not comets.

Rosetta’s mission was due to end this December, but has now been extended until September 2016. The spacecraft and comet will make its closest approach to the Sun, known as its perihelion phase, around August 13 of the current year.

“This is fantastic news for science. We’ll be able to monitor the decline in the comet’s activity as we move away from the Sun again,” European Space Agency’s Matt Taylor said in a press statement. “By comparing detailed ‘before and after’ data, we’ll have a much better understanding of how comets evolve during their lifetimes.”

As the comet leaves the Sun, Rosetta will receive less and less solar energy for its electronics and its fuel propellant will start to peter out, making it harder to conduct experiments and control the spacecraft.

“The most logical way to end the mission is to set Rosetta down on the surface,” said Patrick Martin, Rosetta Mission Manager.

During its remaining time, the robotic explorer will conduct some riskier investigations, such as flying to the dark-side of the comet to observe its plasma, dust and gas interactions. Rosetta will also collect dust samples ejected near the center of the comet.

“But there is still a lot to do to confirm that this end-of-mission scenario is possible,” Martin said. “We’ll first have to see what the status of the spacecraft is after perihelion and how well it is performing close to the comet, and later we will have to try and determine where on the surface we can have a touchdown.”

Scientists will need about three months to land the spacecraft. Once Rosetta lands on the comet, it is unlikely that Earth will ever hear from the spacecraft again, as the mechanical space cowboy rides the comet around the sun every six and half years.

Photo of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken on 25 March 2015 from a distance of 53 miles from the comet center. Photo by European Space Agency/Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

Photo of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken on March 25, 2015, from a distance of 53 miles from the comet center. Photo by European Space Agency/Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research

The latest public photo of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko  taken on June 7, 2015 from a distance of 126 miles from the comet center Photo by European Space Agency/Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

The latest public photo of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken on June 7, 2015, from a distance of 126 miles from the comet center. Photo by European Space Agency/Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research

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