Chinese Probe Gets Up Close And Personal With Asteroid 4179 Toutatis
December 17, 2012

Chinese Probe Gets Up Close And Personal With Asteroid 4179 Toutatis

[Watch Video: Surface Features of Asteroid Toutatis Revealed By Radar]

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

An asteroid by the name of 4179 Toutatis passed close enough to Earth last week that China´s Chang´e-2 probe was able to fly by the object, named for the Celtic deity Teutates by Christian Pollas in 1989, and snap some photos. The asteroid reportedly passed within 2 miles of the probe before swinging back out in Jupiter´s neighborhood.

China´s ability to take some snapshots of the space rock puts it into a lucrative position in space exploration. So far only four space agencies have been able to snap pictures of asteroids: NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and now China.

China´s mission was to scan the surface of the asteroid as it passed relatively close to it on its trajectory. Chang´e-2 made its closest approach on December 13 at 16:30 Beijing Time, according to an announcement by the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND).

Toutatis makes close approaches to Earth about every four years, and scientists say it is considered a potentially hazardous asteroid due to its near-Earth orbit. However, this year´s closest approach was still 4.5 million miles away. As well, the asteroid is only about 2.7 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, much smaller than the asteroid that is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The Chinese flyby also marks the first time an unmanned spacecraft has been able to get such a close viewing of this particular asteroid. Chang´e-2 was launched in 2010 to serve as a lunar orbiter, but after its successful mission at the moon, the probe was repurposed as a deep-space explorer. According to sources, Chinese space officials had been planning the Toutatis encounter for months, but had kept a tight lid on the results until Saturday.

The success of the Chinese mission was hailed by planetary scientists around the world.

"Oh my goodness, did they succeed. This is awesome," the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla said in a blog post passing along the news.

"Welcome to the interplanetary club, China," added Ted Stryk, writing on the Unmanned Spaceflight discussion forum.

Sources with China´s space administration told Xinhua news agency that Chang´e-2 is continuing its deep space explorations and will be about six million miles out from Earth by January 2013.

'The success of the extended missions also embodies that China now possesses spacecraft capable of interplanetary flight,' said Wu Weiren, chief designer of China's lunar probe program.

While China was the first to get close up snapshots of Toutatis, they are continuing to remain secretive about what Chang´e-2 found out about the asteroid. With the encounter behind it, Chang´e-2 is now pushing forward into the cosmos seeking out other interesting encounters along its journey.

NASA´s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) conducted radar observations using the Goldstone radio antenna in California, and released a video (link at top of page) capturing a grainy time-lapse video showing Toutatis´ rotation on Friday. JPL´s observation was taken when Toutatis was at its closest approach to Earth at 4.3 millions away.

The insights taken from such observations may help scientists determine how asteroids came into existence early in the solar system´s history, how to mine them for valuable resources, and also how to divert them from potential impacts with the planet.

Some scientists said that China´s images, along with NASA´s radar readings, made Toutatis one of the “best-studied asteroids in the solar system.” However, others say that is a pretty bold statement, considering NASA studied Eros with NEAR Shoemaker for over a year and its Dawn probe studied Vesta extensively for nearly as long.