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Comet chaser set for close encounter with Earth as it makes first fly-by

Europe's comet chasing Rosetta spacecraft will pass within 2,000 kilometres of Earth as it makes the first of four planetary fly-bys on 4 March. Although Rosetta is not expected to be visible to the naked eye, if the conditions are right, sky watchers in Europe should be able...

Europe's comet chasing Rosetta spacecraft will pass within 2,000 kilometres of Earth as it makes the first of four planetary fly-bys on 4 March. Although Rosetta is not expected to be visible to the naked eye, if the conditions are right, sky watchers in Europe should be able to follow the craft's journey across the night sky using small telescopes or binoculars. It will appear to travel from south east to south west, moving from the constellation Sextans towards the setting Sun. The manoeuvre will slingshot the three-tonne spacecraft around our planet and out towards Mars, where it will make a similar fly-by on 26 February 2007, before returning to make another Earth pass. Making these fly-bys and exploiting planetary gravity is the only way that Rosetta can accelerate to the orbital velocity of its target comet, Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it is expected to reach in 2014. A number of tests are planned during the current fly-by. For example, a few hours before the closest approach with Earth, Rosetta will point towards the Moon and remote sensing and other instruments will be switched on for calibration purposes. After the fly-by, one of the spacecraft's two navigation cameras will be turned towards the Moon as a 'dummy asteroid' to test its ability to track real comets.

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