Rosetta is the name of a European probe that, in the year 2014, will approach a comet and put a lander down on its surface.
As if that's not cool enough! But other things are afoot. Getting to a comet isn't easy, and Rosetta is taking a tortured path through the solar system, passing by Mars once and Earth three times!
The Mars swingby occurred Saturday, and was picture perfect. And I mean that literally. When it passed the Red Planet it took some amazing shots:
This was taken before the slingshot maneuver, and it was taken by the navigation camera-- it's not even a science camera! When Rosetta gets close to the comet which goes by the tongue-twisting name of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the images it returns will be killer.
But Mars provides a pretty stunning backdrop too. You can find a color shot of the whole planet here, which I don't find quite as nice as the greyscale one. Somehow, the greyscale image looks almost three dimensional. I really like that one.
Another cool one was taken showing a high atmospheric cloud on Mars seen from the side:
But perhaps the best one is this:
This was taken when Rosetta was just a few minutes from closest approach to Mars, when it was only about 1000 kilometers (600 miles) over the surface. You can see some details on the ground, and the probe itself is easily visible; that's a solar panel extending off to the right. It's like taking a picture out the side window of your car when you're driving past something cool. But that's not a car, it's a space probe, and it's going considerably faster than highway speeds.
Imagine! From millions of kilometers away, these scientists and engineers threaded the thinnest of imaginable needles, putting Rosetta exactly where it needed to be for the next leg of its trip -- a close encounter with Earth in November of this year.
As always, the wonderful Emily Lakdawalla has the latest info at the Planetary Society weblog. She also has guest bloggers, scientists from the European Space Agency who are writing their personal views of these events as they happened. It's the next best thing to sitting there with them.
And we're not done yet! Rosetta is on its way back in this direction, but New Horizons is still heading out toward Pluto, and Jupiter is looming large in the windshield. Emily has tons of info and pictures about that as well!