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European spacecraft catches up with comet

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A close up detail focusing on a smooth region on the “base” of the “body” section of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and downloaded on August 6.

Spelling an end to more than a decade of pursuit, European Space Agency (ESA)’s Rosetta spacecraft has finally caught up with a comet in an unprecedented coup.

The unmanned probe swung alongside Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Wednesday after a four-billion-mile (6.4-billion-kilometer) chase.

“You can compare what we’ve done so far to finding a speck of dust in a big city,” said Gerhard Schwehm, who was lead scientist on the Rosetta mission until his recent retirement.

The ESA has released images of the comet taken by the probe.

Mark McCaughrean, a senior scientific advisor at ESA, said, “With this comet, every time we see a new image the jaws drop,” he said. “Everybody just can’t believe how lucky we have been.”

According to the agency, the probe will spend about two years traveling alongside 67P and closely observing the comet.

The craft was launched on board an Ariane rocket in March 2004, travelling round the Solar System to catch up with the four-kilometer-wide comet.

The spacecraft will orbit and study the giant lump of dust and ice as it hurtles toward the sun.

It will drop a lander on 67P’s icy surface, a maneuver planned for November.

“We’re going to have a ringside seat to see, for the first time, a comet turn into a comet, to develop its tail and explain what for centuries mankind has been puzzled by,” said David Southwood, a former president of the Royal Astronomical Society who was involved with the Rosetta mission from the start.


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