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The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft is doing a little sightseeing on its decadelong cruise through the inner solar system and beyond. Rosetta (launched in 2004) will not reach its primary target, Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko, until 2014, but in the meantime it has been checking up on some of the denizens of the Asteroid Belt. In 2008 the probe buzzed Asteroid Steins at a distance of just 800 kilometers, and in July of this year Rosetta swung past the much larger Asteroid Lutetia at a distance of 3,160 kilometers.
The flyby produced a number of up-close observations of Lutetia that astronomers will use to investigate its composition and history. The visit should also help clear up which family of asteroids Lutetia belongs to—the C-type of primitive carbonaceous bodies or the more metallic M-type asteroids.
Some answers about the asteroid's true nature are beginning to emerge as researchers analyze the data collected by Rosetta. A number of flyby-related talks and presentations are on the docket for the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences, being held this week in Pasadena, Calif. During an October 4 press conference at the meeting, Rita Schulz of the European Space Agency gave some preliminary information about the flyby, including a walk-through of some of Rosetta's photographic portraits of the asteroid.
Click here to see Lutetia as Rosetta did during its July rendezvous.