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Rosetta probe gets best comet closeup pics yet

Researchers with the Rosetta mission are still waiting anxiously to see if the probe's history-making lander will wake back up.

By Brooks Hays
Rosetta probe gets best comet closeup pics yet
A closeup of the comet shows the surface's crags or ice and rock as well as the smooth layers of dust. Photo by ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

DARMSTADT, Germany, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- Rosetta, the space probe currently orbiting 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, came within 3.7 miles of the comet over the weekend, the closest it's been since the craft first met up with the massive hunk of space ice last year.

The close flyby allowed Rosetta's imaging instruments to capture some of the most detailed pictures yet of the comet's strange surface -- part scarred, part silt. The probe circled over Imhotep during its tightened orbit, a region on the larger end of the comet's double-lobed, snowman-like body.

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The newly released closeup images showcase the textural duality of comet's surface. Layers of dust render parts of the comets smooth, while more exposed portions reveal the cragged nature of its more solid and scarred interior.

The purpose of the probe's flyby wasn't simply to get a better look at the comet's surface, but to allow Rosetta's array of instruments to observe and collect data related to 67P's coma. Scientists with the European Space Agency are especially interested in analyzing the relationship between the comet's outer coma and the inner coma -- the coma's source material provided by the jets that released gasses released by the comet's melting ice.

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The jets of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko have been more visibly active lately as the comet nears the sun and more of its interior melts, freeing new pockets of ancient gas.

Since this weekend's flyby, Rosetta has retreated back out to a heightened orbit and will remain several dozen miles away from the comet's surface for the foreseeable future in order to conduct a variety of other scientific missions.

Researchers with the Rosetta mission are still waiting anxiously to see if the probe's history-making lander will wake back up as more solar rays hit the comet's surface -- potentially recharging the currently missing Philae lander's solar-powered batteries.

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