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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 February 2007, 03:22 GMT
Space probe performs Mars fly-by
Mars through the eyes of Rosetta

A European space probe has completed a close fly-by of the planet Mars in a crucial manoeuvre on its 10-year journey to land on a distant comet.

The unmanned Rosetta craft passed within some 250 km (150 miles) of Mars.

In a precise move, the probe used the planet's gravity to change course on its voyage to the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet out near Jupiter.

Rosetta is due to reach the comet's orbit in 2014 and send a lander to its surface to study its chemistry.

The probe must harness the gravitational forces of the planets to build up the speed it needs to chase down and catch the comet.

Rosetta's flight takes it round the Sun four times, Mars once and the Earth three times, before hurtling out towards Jupiter.

Radio silence

This was the first and only time the spacecraft was to fly past Mars.

Mars (Esa)
From 1,000km: Mars' disc viewed against Rosetta's solar wing
As expected, experts at the mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, lost contact with the probe as it went behind the planet for the 15-minute manoeuvre.

During this time, Rosetta had to rely for power in onboard batteries, as Mars blocked light to its solar panels.

As radio contact was restored, there was applause in the control room.

Spacecraft operations manager Andrea Accomazzo said the manoeuvre was "fundamental to the mission".

"It's a very big success, so we are very happy."

Mars viewed by Rosetta's Osiris narrow-angle camera at 240 000 km (Esa)
A Rosetta camera views dust or clouds in Mars' atmosphere
The probe will perform two similar fly-bys of Earth this year as it accelerates towards the comet.

The craft is named after the Rosetta stone, which led experts to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Scientists hope that this hi-tech Rosetta will, through its exploration of the comet, help solve some of the unexplained mysteries of the Solar System and how it evolved.

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