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Rosetta's 'rubber ducky' comet makes closest approach to Earth, will disappear for 200 years

Comet 67P, the famous target of the Rosetta mission, has made its closest approach to Earth in November 2021.
Comet 67P, the famous target of the Rosetta mission, has made its closest approach to Earth in November 2021. (Image credit: ESA)

Comet 67P, which famously hosted the first-ever cometary lander in 2014, made its closest approach to Earth on Friday (Nov. 12). The comet, which is now bright enough to observe with amateur telescopes, will not come back to our planet for the next 200 years.

During its closest pass at 7:50 pm EST (0050 GMT), Comet 67P was at a distance of 39 million miles (62.8 million kilometres) from our planet, within the orbit of Mars, according to Astronomy Now

Nine days earlier, the comet passed perihelion, the closest point to the sun in its elliptical orbit around our star. At this point, the comet was about 112 million miles (181 million km) from the sun. 

Related: Europe's Rosetta comet mission in pictures

 According to EarthSky, the comet's path, which sees it complete one orbit around the sun every six and a half years, will now start diverging from that of our planet, and the celestial snowball won't make another close pass until the year 2214. So, now is the best time for skywatchers to give it a shot and point their telescopes in the comet's direction. It can be found close to Pollux, the brightest star in the constellation Gemini, EarthSky said. 

Comet 67P was thrust into the international media spotlight in 2014, when a European mission called Rosetta began orbiting the icy body after a 10-year journey through the solar system. Rosetta closely orbited the comet for more than two and a half years, having made detailed measurements and observations of the comet's surface and its immediate surroundings.  

This sky map shows where Comet 67P will be located in the night sky, as seen from New York City at 11:30 p.m. local time on Nov. 12, 2021. (Image credit: SkySafari app)
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The hallmark of the mission was the landing of a smaller probe called Philae, which Rosetta had brought with it. The landing in December 2014 was the first ever on a comet, but it didn't go without a hitch. Upon the first touchdown, Philae bounced twice and ended up in a far less convenient location than the scientists picked for it. The mishap was later attributed to the failure of two harpoons that were designed to attach the lander to the comet upon first contact. 

Unfortunately, Philae settled under a cliff where its solar panels didn't see the sun. After two days, the probe ran out of power and fell asleep. It briefly woke up in June 2015 as the comet's angle towards the sun changed. 

The mission of Rosetta and Philae make Comet 67P the best-studied comet of all. Scientists are still sifting through the treasure trove of data the mission provided. 

At the end of its mission, the Rosetta orbiter crash-landed on the comet's surface, taking more up-close photographs and measurements. That means the duck-shaped snowball (the odd shape being one of the most famous discoveries of the mission) is now speeding away from the sun with two defunct human-made passengers aboard. 

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Tereza Pultarova

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.