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European comet chaser to make last flyby of Earth on Friday

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Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. A file photo

PARIS (AFP/PTI): A billion-euro European spacecraft designed to rendezvous with a comet will skim past Earth on Friday for a final, eagerly-awaited swing by, enabling it to gain speed for a date in deep space in 2014.

European Space Agency (ESA) scientists are relishing the moment when they get to see their cherished baby, Rosetta, which was hoisted aloft in 2004 in one of the most extraordinary missions in space history.

Rosetta is on a 10-year, 7.1-billion-kilometre trek that will lead it to a lonely wanderer of the solar system.

If all goes well, Rosetta will team up with Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May 2014 before dispatching a fridge- sized lab, Philae that will anchor to the rock's surface and look for clues about the solar system's primal past.

Thereafter, Rosetta will shepherd the comet for two years, monitoring it with robot eyes on its blaze around the sun.Before then, though, the probe has to pick up speed -- and Earth's gravity, used as a slingshot, is the key.

On Friday at 0746 GMT (1316 IST), Rosetta will be at its closest point to home, ESA says.

The craft will zip over the Indian Ocean at a height of 2,481 kms at 109 degrees latitude east, 8 degrees longitude south, or just south of the Indonesian island of Java.

"It will speed past Earth at 13.3 kilometres per second," equal to 47,800 kph, ESA says. "The gravity-assist will increase the spacecraft's speed by 3.6 km/s (12,960 kph) with respect to the sun.

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