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 / Updated  / Source: NBC News

The heat is on for Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as it sails ever closer to the sun, with the European Rosetta spacecraft snapping a stunning set of photos that document the buzzing activity of the icy wanderer.

A new montage of comet photos by Rosetta shows gas and dust erupting from Comet 67P as the icy object heads toward its close encounter with the sun in August. Already the sun's warmth is making frozen ices evaporate into gas, which carries dust out with it. This creates an envelope of gas surrounding the comet, called a coma.

The Rosetta image series, which the European Space Agency unveiled Monday, shows the comet's activity between Jan. 31 (top left) and March 25 (bottom right). At the time, Comet 67P was between 226 million and 186 million miles (363 million and 300 million kilometers) from the sun. [Video: Watch Rosetta's Super-Close Comet Encounter]

In August, Comet 67P will pass between the orbits of Earth and Mars and make its closest approach to the sun, at a distance of 115 million miles (185 million kilometers). "The comet's coma will eventually span tens of thousands of kilometers, while the tails may extend hundreds of thousands of kilometers, and both will be visible through large telescopes on Earth," ESA said in its image description.

The Rosetta spacecraft has been watching over the comet since arriving in August 2014. In November, Rosetta released a lander called Philae that successfully touched down on the surface, but far off target in a shady spot. Philae fell silent when its solar-powered batteries drained a few dozen hours after landing. Rosetta has tried listening for Philae a few times in recent weeks, but with no success.

— Elizabeth Howell,

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