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Zooming in on – and past – Lutetia…

Today is a big day, a VERY big day, for ESA, the European Space Agency. In just a few hours time, its unmanned spaceprobe ROSETTA, which is en-route to an encounter with a comet in 2014, will fly past a 100km wide chunk of rock and metal called “Lutetia” more than 450 million km from the Sun. And it’s taking pictures as it does so!

Lutetia is an asteroid, a piece of debris left over from the birth of the solar system 4.5bn years ago, so anything we can learn about asteroids like Lutetia tells us about the birth and evolution of our solar system. ( And with Earth essentially a sitting duck in the firing line from a solar system swarming with potentially planet-killing chunks of rock, anything we can learn about the composition of asteroids might help us protect Earth from devastation one day, if we discover one of them heading right for us. No, we can’t just send out Bruce Willis in a dirty vest, it’s rather more complicated than that, so everything we learn about Lutetia will be a golden nugget of priceless information. )

Spaceprbes have visited and imaged asteroids before, but this is an especially important encounter, perhaps the most important encounter so far, because Lutetia is the biggest asteroid to be visited and studied by a spaceprobe so far: the previous record-holder, “Mathilde”, is less than half the size of Lutetia.

As I write this, ROSETTA is closing-in on Lutetia. Closest approach is scheduled for approx 16.45 my time (British Summer Time) but with my usual lousy timing I’ll be at work, so I’ll have to catch up on the encounter in my break, when I expect to see some gorgeous pictures taken by ROSETTA’s cameras.

We’ve already got one image, but taken from very, very far away it doesn’t show much detail…

Yes, that’s Lutetia in the centre of the image. Ok, ok, it doesn’t look much, granted, but the fact that we can already see the asteroid has an irregular shape from so far away bodes well for the close encounter later today.

So why should people – and by “people” I mean people who aren’t amateur astronomers, space geeks or internet science junkies – be bothered by all this? Well, because on a very basic level this is EXPLORATION, we’re all about to see somewhere that’s never been seen before. Until today, Lutetia has just been a point of light in the sky, a dot on a star chart. By the time I come home from work and collapse into this chair again, that point of light will have been transformed into a real world, with its own unique and fascinating craters, mountains, ridges and who knows what else! By the time I get home and turn on my computer that “point of light” will have been mapped, just as the coastlines of Australia and America were mapped by the ocean-going explorers of centuries past. And within a few days, Lutetia’s features will have names, giving the asteroid its own instant history, and a connection to our species, and its history.

Thanks to ESA sharing this encounter with us, by releasing images as soon as they can (still wish they’d release “raw” images, tho, like the MER and CASSINI teams do!), we can all be part of the mission, of this interplanetary adventure.

We might take that for granted now, we might even think it’s our right to have these front row seats for these encounters, but it’s easy to forget that in years gone by, we were not so fortunate. When the Voyagers encountered Jupiter and Saturn, when the Vikings encountered Mars, there were no web pages with images, no blogs being writtten by members of the science teams, nothing like that. After seeing one or two grainy, badly-printed images in the next day’s paper we had to wait months until a “special issue” of an astronomy magazine printed pictures from the encounters. But later today we will all be able to see what ROSETTA sees on ESA websites. We’re all along for the ride. We’re all deckhands on the Santa Maria, or the Endeavour, leaning over the railings and seeing a fascinating, beautiful new horizon.

But the bottom line is this: by the time Lutetia falls away behind ROSETTA, all of us will know just a little more about what’s “out there”, and that has to be a good thing.

No, it’s more than good. It’s amazing!

You can follow the encounter via this ESA blog…

http://webservices.esa.int/blog/blog/5

And don’t forget to check back here later for images from the fly-by.

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