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Year in Space: Rosetta Mission's Comet Landing Takes the Prize

When you look back at the past year in space, one achievement stands out: the unprecedented touchdown of the Philae lander on a comet.

When you look back at the past year in space, one achievement stands out: the unprecedented touchdown of the Philae lander on a comet hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, at the climax of the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission.

Don't just take our word for it: Last month's landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is already figuring prominently in year-end roundups, including Nature's top 10 people who mattered in science, Science News' top 25 stories of the year, Euronews' top people of 2014, Physics World's 2014 Breakthrough of the Year, Discover magazine's top 100 stories of 2014 and more.

The best thing is that the $1.7 billion (€1.3 billion) mission is far from over: During this week's American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, scientists showed off new pictures and talked about the next phase of the journey for the car-sized Rosetta spacecraft that's tailing the comet. They also voiced hopes for reviving the Philae lander, a probe that's about the size of a washing machine and is currently hibernating on the comet's surface.

Project scientist Matt Taylor says the team plans to send the Rosetta spacecraft to within 4 miles (6 kilometers) of the surface next February. That will be the closest approach made by the craft during its primary mission.

"It is the earliest we could carry it out without impacting the vitally important bound orbits that are currently being flown," Taylor said in a NASA news release. "As the comet becomes more and more active, it will not be possible to get so close to the comet. So this opportunity is very unique."

During the close encounter, Rosetta will be able to obtain high-resolution imagery as well as data about the effect of cometary gas emissions on the dust flying off the surface. It may also be possible to pinpoint the place where Philae landed after its double-bounce on Nov. 12.

The imagery collected so far suggests that Philae landed in a shadowed area of the comet, where it couldn't use its solar panels to recharge its batteries. That's why it had to go into hibernation mode. As the comet nears the sun, a shift in lighting conditions could allow Philae to power up again — assuming that the lander's electronics have survived the chill.

Image: Perihelion Cliff
From the location where it came to rest after bounces, the Philae lander of the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission captured this view of "Perihelion Cliff" on the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.ESA / Rosetta / Philae / CIVA

Rosetta team members say Philae could start soaking up sunlight in April or May, and communications could resume by May or June. If Philae is revived, the lander could continue taking pictures and analyzing the comet's surface chemistry as Churyumov-Gerasimenko and the Rosetta spacecraft swing around the sun.

The primary mission is scheduled to last for another year, and if all goes well, it could be extended into 2016. Will Rosetta be next year's top story as well? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are four more space sagas to round out our top-five list for 2014:

What'll be big in 2015? Here's our list of five top space trends to watch over the next year:

Looking back at 'Years in Space'