A robot lander aboard a European spacecraft, in snapping a selfie, has captured a dramatic image of a comet as it prepares for a landing on the surface of the cosmic rock.
Taken by the Philae robot soon to be heading for the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from the Rosetta spacecraft, the image -- taken Oct. 7 from just 10 miles away from the comet -- has captured its activity, with jets of dust and gas streaming from it.
Philae, currently attached to its Rosetta "mothership," is set to attempt a landing on the comet on Nov. 12, scientists with the European Space Agency said Tuesday.
Visible in the image, the last that will be taken before Philae separates from Rosetta for its attempted landing, are both the comet and one of Rosetta's 45-foot-long solar arrays.
After it separates, the slight gravity of the comet will be enough to pull the Philae robot onto its surface, at a preselected landing spot on the smaller "lobe" of the dumbbell-shaped comet.
Philae will approach the comet at a speed of 2.2 mph, and on touching the surface will fire two "harpoons" into it to anchor itself. The robot will then drill into the comet to further secure itself, since the escape velocity of the comet is just 1.1 mph.
The chosen landing spot, dubbed Site J, is under review and a final announcement is expected Oct. 15.
From separation to landing on the comet will take about 7 hours, ESA scientists say.
After Philae is detached, it will rotate to take a picture of Rosetta as it is pulled toward the comet, then will prepare to capture a full 360-degree panoramic image of the comet, assuming the landing is successful, they say.
The image release by the ESA is from two exposures, one short and one long, combined to capture both the bright parts of Rosetta's solar arrays and its darker cladding insulation, as well as the dark comet itself.
Rosetta is the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet and go into orbit around it; previous missions to seven other comets consisted of just flybys.
Launched in March 2004, Rosetta arrived at the comet on August 6 of this year, and is scheduled to remain in orbit around it for 17 months of scientific study.
As is the case with all comets, the Philae target is named after its discoverers, in this case Klim Ivanovych Churyumov and Svetlana Ivanovna Gerasimenko, who first detected it in 1969.