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Rosetta buzzes comet for close-up of craggy surface

Rosetta swoops near Comet 67P for a series of images highlighting the comet's fascinating surface features.

These images were taken as a distance of nearly 8 miles from the comet's center. ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM - CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille. The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft swept in for an up-close-and-personal look at the rocky object it's been studying for months. Rosetta passed within about 3.7 miles of the comet's surface, which pretty much qualifies as spitting distance.

The ESA describes this as "the first dedicated close flyby of the mission." The approach happened on February 14 and resulted in some fascinating images. Researchers have compiled some of the images into mosaics and montages, but note that the proximity to the comet in combination with its rotation can cause challenges when working with multiple images. There may be some ghosting or visual mismatches.

Rosetta's nearness gave scientists a fresh set of eyes on the comet, revealing details that were previously hard to see. Notable landscape features include boulders, a long, fractured and exposed surface area and what the ESA describes as "the faint outline of raised near-circular objects with smooth floors."

While the images are stunning, the flyby also supports other parts of Rosetta's mission. The spacecraft's instruments took the opportunity to "sample the innermost parts of the comet's atmosphere." Comet 67P has been displaying some interesting behavior, including shedding dust particles and pouring water vapor out into space.

After a 10-year chase, Rosetta arrived at the comet in 2014. Rosetta's lander Philae successfully landed on the comet's surface in November, but a bouncy landing and unfortunate stopping place left the lander with too little sun exposure to operate. There is still hope the Philae lander may reactivate as the comet gets closer to the sun. In the meantime, Rosetta continues with its study of the fascinating comet.