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The Rosetta spacecraft’s extended mission may end with a spectacular crash

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Fans of deep space missions, rejoice — the European Space Agency just extended the Rosetta spacecraft's mission until September of 2016. Before today, the plan was to simply switch off Rosetta's power this coming December and let it orbit the comet indefinitely.

The ESA still has to decide Rosetta's ultimate fate. A few weeks ago the scientists in charge of Rosetta announced they want to crash the spacecraft into Comet 67P at the end of the mission — an idea that is not as brute as it seems. By doing this, Rosetta's cameras and instruments could return increasingly detailed results before impact. The spacecraft is also working with a limited fuel supply and will be racing away from the Sun (which powers the electronics) by then, so crashing it into the comet may just be the most efficient way to spend the rest of its mission.

Rosetta has been one of the most fun space missions to follow

Rosetta has been one of the most fun space missions to follow over the last year. In August of 2014 it completed an epic 10-year journey to Comet 67P / Churyumov–Gerasimenko some 300 million miles away. But crisis hit when it deployed the Philae lander in November to study the comet's surface. As the lander descended, the harpoons meant to anchor the craft to the comet malfunctioned. Philae skipped across the surface and eventually came to rest in a dark crevice — a bad spot for a spacecraft that runs on solar power.

Philae sent back a surprising amount of data, but with little power it quickly slipped into a deep sleep. Worse, the Rosetta scientists lost sight of the lander, and only recently found promising evidence of its location on the comet. In the meantime, Rosetta took some stunning photographs of Comet 67P. It also taught us a lot about the strange, icy bodies in our outer solar system, and even provided evidence against the theory that Earth's water originally came from comets.

Then, this month, Philae re-established contact. The Rosetta team received 300 data packets from the lander and also found 8,000 others stored in its memory banks, which means it collected more data at some point during its presumed hibernation. After today's news, Rosetta has much more time to pry that data from the lander.