Asteroid Close-Up Could Foreshadow NASA's Future

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The European spacecraft Rosetta made a daringly close fly-by of the large, pockmarked asteroid, Lutetia, late last night.

Rosetta passed just 3162 kilometers (1965 miles) away from the asteroid, which sits in the asteroid belt beyond Mars hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth. The large number of craters on the object suggest it has been circling the sun for a long time, perhaps as long as 4.5 billion years. "Tonight we have seen a remnant of the solar system's creation," said Holger Sierks, who worked on the craft's imaging system at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Lindau, Germany. And a small remnant at that: Lutetia's longest side is 130 kilometers (81 miles).

The approach was broadcast live by the European Space Agency, so you could watch as Rosetta raced towards asteroid at 15 kilometers per second (33,500 miles per hour). The livestream appears to have peaked at about 3,000 simultaneous viewers. 

The mission foreshadows what U.S. space exploration could increasingly look like in the coming years. NASA under President Obama has swept away the grand but woefully underfunded Vision of Space Exploration put forth by President George W. Bush. The nation's space agency has proposed a new exploration plan that pushes back human trips to the Moon or Mars in favor of exploring, and possibly landing on, smaller objects. But no matter how technically ambitious the work, will the new program draw the interest of the American people without a big name solar object to headline the show?

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Image: 1. Rosetta's approach in frames. 2. A close-up of Lutetia.  Credit: ESA.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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