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Rosetta mission extended by ESA until 2016

on 23 June 2015

The European Space Agency (ESA) today confirmed that its Rosetta mission will be extended until the end of September 2016, at which point the spacecraft will most likely be landed on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Rosetta was launched in 2004 and arrived at the comet in August 2014, where it has been studying the nucleus and its environment as the comet moves along its 6.5-year orbit closer to the Sun. After a detailed survey, Rosetta deployed the lander, Philae, to the surface on 12 November. Philae fell into hibernation after 57 hours of initial scientific operations, but recently awoke and made contact with Rosetta again.

The Rosetta mission was originally funded until the end of December 2015, but at a meeting today, ESA’s Science Programme Committee has given formal approval to continue the mission for an additional nine months. At that point, as the comet moves far away from the Sun again, there will no longer be enough solar power to run Rosetta’s set of scientific instrumentation efficiently.

“This is fantastic news for science”, said Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta Project Scientist. “We’ll be able to monitor the decline in the comet’s activity as we move away from the Sun again, and we’ll have the opportunity to fly closer to the comet to continue collecting more detailed data. By comparing detailed ‘before and after’ data, we’ll have a much better understanding of how comets evolve during their lifetimes.”

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will make its closest approach to the Sun on 13 August and Rosetta has been watching its activity increase over the last year. Continuing its study of the comet in the year following perihelion will give scientists a fuller picture of how a comet’s activity waxes and wanes along its orbit.

As the activity diminishes post-perihelion, it should be possible to move the orbiter much closer to the comet’s nucleus again, to make a detailed survey of changes in the comet’s properties during its brief ‘summer’.

During the extended mission, the team will use the experience gained in operating Rosetta in the challenging cometary environment to carry out some new and potentially slightly riskier investigations, including flights across the night-side of the comet to observe the plasma, dust, and gas interactions in this region, and to collect dust samples ejected close to the nucleus.

Image credit: Spacecraft - ESA/ATG medialab; Comet image - ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM