The Earth looks beautiful but fragile in a spectacular travel snap from the spaceprobe mistaken for an asteroid. Our home planet appeared as a fine crescent as Europe’s Rosetta closed in for a gravity boost that would send it flying back out into the depths of the solar system.
The robot craft swooped in at 28,000mph, just 3,290 miles above the sea south-west of Chile at 22.57 UT on Tuesday. As it approached, much of Earth was in shadow except for an illuminated strip around Antarctica.
The Wide Angle Camera – part of the craft’s Optical Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System – produced this wonderful picture by combining images taken at different wavelengths from a distance of less than 50,000 miles.
Another image released by the European Space Agency showed the dark side of the Earth, with cities and countries revealed by their artificial lighting.
The effect resembled a scattering of jewels but, of course, produces the light pollution that is a curse for astronomers. Click on the image to view an annotated version identifying the different locations.
Another light show visible near the top of the Earth’s globe is the aurora borealis, or northern lights, dancing around the North Pole.
No sonner had Rosetta arrived home than it was off again on its ten-year mission to plant a lander on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The probe, launched in March 2004, made a similar close pass of Mars in February this year and will pass the Earth again in November, 2009.
On its way to the comet, Rosetta will fly close to and study two minor planets, Steins and Lutetia, during two journeys through the asteroid belt in 2008 and 2010.