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.
— ESA Rosetta Mission (@ESA_Rosetta) June 23, 2015
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.
— Philae Lander (@Philae2014) June 19, 2015
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.