September 5, 2008

European Comet Probe Swings Past Asteroid

A European spacecraft
zoomed by a rocky asteroid Friday in the first of two pit stops on the
way to a distant comet.

European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta comet probe zipped
by the asteroid Steins
, a space rock in the asteroid belt between the
planets Mars and Jupiter, as it streaked across the solar system millions of
miles from Earth.

Rosetta made
its closest pass by Steins, officially known as Asteroid 2867, at 2:58 p.m. EDT
(1858 GMT), and swung within 500 miles (800 km) as it flew past at a clip of
19,262 mph (31,000 kph).

The probe has
had Steins in its
sights for weeks
, and was expected to train its 11 instruments onto the space
rock and begin beaming the first images back to ESA's mission control center in
Darmstadt, Germany later tonight.

managers received their first post-flyby signal from Rosetta at about 4:14 p.m.
EDT (2014 GMT). Images of the event showed mission controllers celebrating with
wide smiles and hugs

"The entire
Flight Control Team just let out a loud cheer!" wrote Daniel Scuka, an ESA
writer chronicling Rosetta's flyby on the ESA mission's blog.

Launched in
March 2004, Rosetta and its lander Philae are headed for a planned 2014
rendezvous with the comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Friday's encounter with Steins
and a second flyby past the asteroid Lutetia in 2010 are expected to serve as
dry runs for Rosetta's comet encounter and shed new light on the composition
and orbits of similar space rocks.

Aside from
some minor challenges, the flyby appeared to go well.

"The status of the spacecraft is nominal," said Andrea Accomazzo, spacecraft
operations manager for Rosetta, in an ESA interview before the probe made its
closest approach. "We had some issues in finding the proper setting of the
cameras to do the tracking but now we've configured all the parameters and we're
very satisfied with the tracking that we're receiving."

believe Steins is a Class E-type asteroid, one of the rarest kinds of space
rocks in the solar system, and may hold in its rocky interior clues to how
planets and other objects formed billions of years ago, ESA officials have said.
The asteroid may actually have been part of an even larger space rock that
chipped off in the distant past, they added.

The space
rock is relatively small, about 3.1 miles (5 km) wide, and circles the sun from
a distance of about 219 million miles (353 million km).

Steins flyby is the latest in a series of space rendezvous for the probe as it
makes its way out toward the comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

spacecraft flew
past Earth twice
, in March 2005 and November 2007, respectively, with a
third pass by the planet due in November 2009. The spacecraft also flew past
the planet Mars in February 2007 and is slated to rendezvous with the asteroid
Lutetia in June 2010 before heading off to its cometary quarry.

asteroid flyby marked the first of two very different space milestones for ESA

scientists and engineers monitored Rosetta's rendezvous from their control
center in Darmstadt, Germany, another team at a control center in Toulouse,
France geared up for the planned 5:30 p.m. EDT (2130 GMT) undocking of the cargo
ship Jules Verne
- Europe's first Automated Transfer Vehicle - from the
International Space Station.