London: The European Space Agency’s orbiting Rosetta spacecraft is expected to come within six km of the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in February next year.
The flyby will be the closest the comet explorer will come during its prime mission.
“It is the earliest we could carry it out without impacting the vitally important bound orbits that are currently being flown,” said Matt Taylor, Rosetta project scientist from the European Space Research and Technology Center in the Netherlands.
“As the comet becomes more and more active, it will not be possible to get so close to the comet. So this opportunity is very unique,” he added.
The low flyby will be an opportunity for Rosetta to obtain imagery with a resolution of a few inches per pixel.
The flyby will also allow the study of the processes by which cometary dust is accelerated by the cometary gas emission.
“Rosetta is providing us with a grandstand seat of the comet throughout the next year. This flyby will put us track side - it is going to be that close,” Taylor noted.
The Rosetta orbiter deployed its Philae lander to one spot on the comet's surface in November.
Philae obtained the first images taken from a comet's surface and will provide analysis of the comet's possible primordial composition.