The European Space Agency (ESA) has extended the mission of its comet orbiter Rosetta until September 2016. Its ultimate fate is still undecided.
Some scientists speculate that a crash landing is imminent.
“This time, as we’re riding along next to the comet, the most logical way to end the mission is to set Rosetta down on the surface,” says Patrick Martin, the Rosetta Mission Manager. “But there is still a lot to do to confirm that this end-of-mission scenario is possible.”
But it’s not as fatalistic as it sounds. In another year Rosetta will be too far from the sun to charge its equipment, meaning a crash into Comet 67P could be the most efficient and useful way to spend its last months of fuel. This would allow Rosetta to gather increasingly detailed information as it approaches the comet over a span of three months as it lands.
Rosetta has been one of the most exciting space missions to follow, in the past year especially. Just last August the spacecraft had completed a historic ten year voyage to Comet 67P nearly 300 miles away where it gathered data on the rock formation and its surrounding environment.
A crisis arose last November when Rosetta deployed its Philae lander. The lander fell into the worse place possible: a shady nook which prevented its solar panels from recharging it. But just last week Philae woke up, possibly gaining energy as more sunlight reached the comet’s surface, rejuvenating the project and resulting in the extended Rosetta mission.
The original plan was to shut off the Rosetta spacecraft this December and allow it to orbit Comet 67P indefinitely. But the ESA announced this past Tuesday the program will be funded for another nine months.
“The adventure continues,” read the official ESA press release.