The European Space Agency has revealed images from their Rosetta mission of Asteroid Lutitia. Badass. They got as close as 3162 km, which is just under 2000 miles, which thanks to The Pretenders, we know is very far in the snow, where he's gone. The Pretenders aside, this is pretty cool. Here is the image of the asteroid:
There is also a great simulation video at the ESA Rosetta website to watch.
So, what does this all mean? How is this science? What do we learn? Is this just a futile competition between space agencies saying 'My spaceship did cooler things than your spaceship!'? NO! There are many things we can learn, and plus, as is ever the study of space, it is pretty freaking cool. Here, you can see how close they actually get:
This image shows what seems like a landslide. Pretty epic, eh? The camera they used for these pictures has a 60m resolution at it's closest point to the asteroid. This means that if two objects are more than 60m apart, the camera can tell the difference. Kind of when you see a speck of dust and you get really close, but it turns out it's actually TWO sneaky specks of dust. Do you not spend your time investigating the spectral resolution of dust on your desk? Fine. But, now you will. Or you will at least now see a speck of dust and say 'The resolution of my eyes can only say it is one piece of dust'. You will. Trust me.
The scientists working on this object say that they think it is very old. Seeing all the craters on the surface is a good indication that it has been around for a while. It also does not have the visual characteristics of a young, iron-rich surface which would indicate a different source. This asteroid has been known for a while and has been studied from the ground, but the evidence from these studies has not given a clear picture.
That means that further study of the asteroid can again give clues towards it's source and the evolution of the Solar System. Rosetta has many instruments on it to collect data. One, for example, can collect dust floating around the asteroid and bring it back for study. If that was successful, we will not know until the instrument returns, but it'd be pretty sweet, no?
Rosetta is not done yet, oh no. ESA is going to stretch this instrument like a nice piece of Taffy. This is not even it's main mission, oh no, this was just a pit-stop on the road of scientific discovery. Rosetta is flying on to rendez-vous with the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is going to fly alongside the comet for a timescale of months, saying 'Please be my friend. Please give me cool things to take home and show my mum! Please? Please? Please?' It is even sending a probe in 2014 (when it meets up) to land on the main part of the comet (the 'nucleus'). We shall all have to wait with baited breath for the next, um, 4-ish years, and see what Rosetta will have to brag about.