It's been a while since I posted a cool picture. So here you go:
The bright red spot is Mars, and all the fuzziness in the background is actually the combined light from billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Now, this is a pretty cool picture all by its lonesome, but what makes this much, much cooler is that it was not taken here on Earth! This image is from the European spacecraft Rosetta, due to rendezvous with the comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014.
Rosetta will be using Mars to give it a speed boost via gravitational slingshot at the end of February. As it passes through the asteroid belt it will pass near enough to two asteroids -- 2867 Steins and 21 Lutetia -- to get some pretty good images of them. We still only have close-up imaging of a handful of asteroids, so these images will be very exciting when they come in. But it'll be a while: the encounters aren't until September 2008 and July 2010, respectively.
However, on the Rosetta site they have a nifty animation of Lutetia as seen by the spacecraft. It's still a little dot, but you can see it moving against the starry background, a combination of the movement of the spacecraft and the asteroid. Coooool.
When Rosetta reaches the comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it will release a lander that will physically, well, land on the comet nucleus! We will then, for the first time in history, have close-up images taken of the surface of a comet, from that surface! I can only imagine what we'll see when that happens. Will it be smooth? Bumpy? Cratered? Spiky? Covered with boulders, snow drifts, icy patches?
If you're in the southern hemisphere, you can still see Comet McNaught. If you can, take a good look at it. Comets are still a big mystery, but because we're curious, because we're smart, and because we want to find things out, they won't remain mysterious forever.