Chinese spacecraft sends back snapshots of near-miss asteroid

While the rest of the world was content to just let the mountain-sized asteroid 4179 Toutatis zip right past Earth without being molested, China sent a spacecraft out to get a closer look at this potential herald of an extinction-level event.

We'd originally heard that China's Chang'e 2 spacecraft (which was puttering around out in space after its successful 2010 lunar survey mission) would pass within about a 100 miles of Toutatis. This is very, very close, as distances out in space go. Instead, Chang'e 2 apparently passed within two miles of Toutatis. Two. We don't know whether this was intentional or an accident, but either way, that's ridiculously, suicideally close, especially consider that the probe was travelling at 6.7 miles per second relative to the asteroid. For scale, the asteroid is about three miles long, and the largest surface feature in the picture is about 35 feet across.

The pictures you're looking at here were taken from as close as 58 miles away, using a one megapixel auxiliary camera originally designed to provide verification of a successful solar panel deployment. Chang'e 2 also has on board a high resolution stereo camera, along with a laser altimeter and a variety of spectrometers, but we don't yet know whether any of these instruments were turned on during the flyby. So, it's possible that we'll get back even better pictures somewhere down the line, but for now, these ones are fairly spectacular all by themselves.

Xinhua, via Sky and Telescope

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