Saturday, July 24, 2010

Comet-chaser catches up to asteroid

by Verena Schmitt-Roschmann Associated Press Jul. 11, 2010 12:00 AM

The European Space Agency has taken the closest look yet at asteroid Lutetia in an extraordinary quest some 280 million miles in outer space between Mars and Jupiter.

The comet-chaser Rosetta transmitted its first pictures from the largest asteroid ever visited by a satellite Saturday night after it flew by Lutetia as close as 1,900 miles, ESA said in Darmstadt, Germany.

"These are fantastic and exciting pictures," space agency scientist Rita Schulz said in a webcast presentation. She said it would take several weeks before all 400 pictures and all data from the high-precision instruments aboard Rosetta would come through to Earth.

"I am a very happy man," ESA manager David Southwood said. "It is a great day for European Science and for world science."

Though Lutetia was discovered 150 years ago, for a long time it was little more than a point of light to those on Earth. Only recent high-resolution ground-based imaging has given a vague view of the asteroid, the agency said.

"At the moment we know very little about it," Schulz said.

Lutetia is believed to be 83.3 miles in diameter with a "pronounced elongation," but scientists have been puzzled as to what type of asteroid it is - a "primitive" one containing carbon compounds or a metallic asteroid.

"We are now going to get the details of this asteroid, which is very important," Schulz said. "There will be a lot of science coming from that mission."

Scientists hope to find in the information and images gathered by Rosetta clues to the history of comets and asteroids and of the solar system, Schulz said.

For Rosetta, examining Lutetia and other asteroids is only a side event on its long journey to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko - the mission's destination, project manager Gerhard Schwehm said.

Rosetta was launched in 2004 and is expected to reach its target in 2014.

Comet-chaser catches up to asteroid

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