Comet close-up: Europe’s craft prepares for a historic ride-along

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The comet with the long name — Comet 67P/​Churyumov-Gerasimenko — is an irregular-shaped 2.5-mile-wide amalgamation of ice, rock and dust that is older than humanity. Finally, it is ready for its close-up.

After a decade-long, 4 billion-mile journey, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft is closing in on the ancient space traveler nicknamed Comet C-G.

Last week, Rosetta got its first close look at the comet after firing its thrusters and slowing to 2 mph relative to the speed of the giant hurtling boulder. Traveling at a leisurely 34,400 mph, both Rosetta and Comet C-G are 334 million miles from the sun.

As historic as the encounter between the Earth-made craft and the comet already is, things will get really personal in November. That’s when Rosetta will launch its 62-pound lander Philae toward the comet. The lander will anchor itself on the surface for what promises to be the wildest ride in the solar system.

Philae will monitor conditions on Comet C-G while Rosetta tags along, recording the comet’s evolution from very cold ball to hot mess as it approaches the sun. If all goes according to plan, the $1.7 billion mission will give humans insight to how their solar system was formed 4.2 billion years ago. 

That’s one giant leap for the European Space Agency.

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