Clouds swirl above Antarctica in this sliver of Earth, glimpsed by Rosetta in 2009. ( ESA)
Clouds swirl above Antarctica in this sliver of Earth, glimpsed by Rosetta in 2009. ( ESA)

Incredible Photos From Spacecraft’s 4 Billion-Mile Journey

Last week, a small spacecraft named Rosetta caught up with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Their rendezvous took place between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and marked the end of a 10-year, 4 billion-mile chase.

The journey took Rosetta along a tortuous, dizzying path as it traveled from Earth to its faraway, 2.5-mile wide target. Looping around Earth and Mars several times, the European Space Agency’s probe gathered gravity assists that would help sling it to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Now about 62 miles (100 km) from the two-lobed object, the spacecraft is sending detailed images of the comet’s surface. Over the next six weeks, it will descend to a point just 18 miles (30 km) above the icy chunk; then sometime this fall, Rosetta will deploy a lander named Philae to a yet-to-be determined site on the comet’s surface.

Rosetta will remain in orbit around its comet through the next year, gathering data about these spectacular travelers that have fascinated and terrified Earthlings for millennia.

But the spacecraft wasn’t exactly sleeping as it raced to catch the comet with the really long and tough-to-pronounce name. As it swung around planets and brushed by asteroids, Rosetta was awake and shooting photos (browse through the images here). Some of those are in the gallery above, and are absolutely gorgeous. Among them are Mars, set against a glittering Milky Way backdrop, a crescent Earth with the south polar vortex just visible above Antarctica, and a new view of the moon.

And below, I’ve included a recent image taken by Rosetta of its home for the next year.

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Rosetta’s target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, seen on August 12 from about 60 miles away. (ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM)