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Rosetta comet-chasing mission extended to September 2016

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The European Space Agency (ESA) announced Tuesday that its historic comet-chasing mission Rosetta had been extended until the end of September 2016.

“ESA’s Science Programme Committee has given formal approval to continue the mission for an additional nine months,” ESA said.

In a final flourish, the spacecraft may be “landed” on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the comet it has been following, the agency said in a press release.

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Launched in 2004, the mission has been applauded as a milestone in the exploration of space.

It comprises an orbiter, Rosetta, and a robot lab, Philae, which seek to unveil the secrets of comets — primordial clusters of ice and dust that may shed light on the formation of the Solar System and on how life developed on Earth.

After a 10-year chase, the pair caught up with 67P last August.

In November, Philae was landed on the comet surface, and in a dramatic 60-hour episode carried out a range of experiments before its stored battery power gave out.

But the 100-kilo (220-pound) lab has now revived, thanks to sunlight bathing its solar panels as the comet hurtles towards the Sun.

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Both Rosetta and Philae will have a grandstand view when 67P reaches perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, on August 13, scientists hope.

The comet will then loop back into deep space, beginning another six-and-a-half-year trek around our star.

The mission had been nominally funded until the end of December 2015, and its extension was not a surprise.

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By the end of September 2016, “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,” ESA said.

“At (this) point, the spacecraft will most likely be landed on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.”

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