Sunday, July 11, 2010

Time for Lutetia's Close-Up

If you look at one space-based photo a year, please, for 2010, make it this one:

This is a shot of Asteroid Lutetia, shot by the European Space Agency's Rosetta space probe on July 10, as the probe neared the floating bit of space rock. That in of itself is spectacular, though the image is made even more amazing - and a little eerie - with Saturn floating into the probe's field of vision.

There's a lump of rock out there, about 100 kilometers in diameter, floating in the void. It's near enough to the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter to be considered a main belt asteroid, but still, it's in a lonely place out there. Since the dawnna time, it's been floating out there, getting pock-marked and dusty. Maybe, early on, it had a more unique color, but the dust of space has settled there now, thick, painting it a uniform gray, mottled here and there by darker bits and lighter streaks. Pounded by sister hunks of space junk.

Then a little hunk of metal and silicon and glass what whatnot else comes out of the void, speeding towards Lutetia at a phenomenal rate. Little strands of radiation reach out from the little hunk, probing the big hunk, then sending more streams of radiation back somewhere along the route on which it came. In a few scant hours, it's gone from sight, only the slight whisper of its communications and the exhalations from its engines left to mark its passage. Lutetia, alone for eons, is alone again.

Lutetia is one of only a handful of encounters Rosetta will have on its way to its 2014 rendezvous with Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. During that encounter, the probe will parallel the comet along its path roughly from the orbit of Jupiter to the comet's closest approach to the Sun. Along the way, it'll drop a probe that'll actually land on the comet's surface. It's pretty much what the Three Amigos did in "Shootin' for Love."

I love these kinds of space missions -- those done just for the sake of science. And for photos like this:

That's Lutetia's dark side, backlit by the Sun. We're so used to seeing crescents that are round all over it's kind of hard to adjust to the thought of a rugged crescent like this one.

I love looking at these photos. All I can think is "Space Potato." That's probably juvenile of me. Now we just need to corral one of these things, hollow it out and build a spaceship inside and we can seed the universe with the nuttiness that is Earth-based humanity.

And here I go again benefitting from the creative energies of others without paying for it. Am I a hypocrite? I suppose I am. They did not make these Star Trek episodes so some wonk can publish them on his blog. Thought maybe I can classify this under the aegis of cultural research. Naw, that seems like a bit of a stretch.

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