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ESA Extends Rosetta Spacecraft’s Comet Exploration Mission by 9 Months

The Rosetta spacecraft won't die next winter after all. The European Space Agency announced on Tuesday that the orbiter's mission will be extended by nine months as it tracks Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko across the solar system.

"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 unique data," Matt Taylor, the ESA's Rosetta project scientist, said in a statement.

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Rosetta was launched in 2004. It flew by Mars and several asteroids before hibernating for 31 months, waking up (to the relief of ESA scientists) in January of last year. In August 2014, it made headlines by deploying the Philae lander to the comet's surface, the first time such a feat had been achieved.

Philae also scared researchers by going dark for seven months before re-establishing contact with Earth less than two weeks ago.

The plan was to pull the plug on Rosetta's mission in December 2015, but after meeting on Tuesday, the ESA decided to keep it going until the end of September 2016. This will allow the spacecraft to gather information on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as it makes its closest approach to the sun on Aug. 13.

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After that, Rosetta will take on riskier tasks as its propellant runs low, sending back data until it ends its mission — possibly by "landing" on the comet's surface.