The mission of comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta has been extended by almost a year, the European Space Agency has announced.
The Rosetta mission, which has entered history books by landing the first man-made object, the Philae lander, on the surface of a comet, was originally scheduled to end in December this year.
Following the revival of the dormant Philae lander earlier this month, Esa has decided to extend the mission by nine months, enabling the spacecraft to gather more data.
The space agency now plans to end the mission in September 2016, at which point its controllers will gradually lower the spacecraft’s orbit and eventually drop it onto the surface of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
"This is fantastic news for science,” said Matt Taylor, 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 unique data.”
The lump of ice and rock, with Rosetta in the orbit around it, will reach the closest point to the Sun on 13 August. As it approaches it will become much more active, with jets of gas and dust bursting out of its interior.
Subsequently, as the comet retreats from the Sun, there will be less and less power available for Rosetta up until the point when its solar panels will not be able to sustain it.
In the meantime, however, researchers will be able to attempt some rather risky investigations, including flights across the night side of the comet to observe the plasma, dust and gas interactions in this region. Dust samples ejected close to the comet's heart, or 'nucleus', may also be collected.
"As we're riding next to the comet, the most logical way to end the mission is to set Rosetta down on the surface," said Rosetta mission manager Patrick Martin.
The spacecraft would be given a command to spiral down to the comet over a period of about three months.
During this time, science operations are expected to continue, allowing Rosetta's instruments to gather data from very close to the comet's surface.
However, the Rosetta team has stressed that there is much to do before it can confirm that this end-of-mission scenario is possible.
"We'll first have to see what the status of the spacecraft is after perihelion and how well it is performing close to the comet, and later we will have to try and determine where on the surface we can have a touchdown," said Martin.
Once the orbiter joins Philae on the surface it is highly unlikely to continue relaying data back to Earth.
Philae, which went into a hibernation mode less than three days after its historic landing, bounced back to life in mid-June. As the comet reached closer to the Sun, the lander’s solar panels were able to generate enough electricity to power up the lander despite the inconvenient location in which it came to rest after a landing mishap.
With its view of the Sun blocked by a cliff, the lander wasn’t able to recharge its batteries and shut down after its primary batteries ran out of power after 57 hours.
The scientists hope the extended operation period will also allow them to visually identify Philae with a better certainty when the orbiter gets closer to the comet’s surface.
Rosetta was launched in 2004 and arrived at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after a decade-long journey through space.