BERLIN (Reuters) - The European Space Agency obtained on Saturday the first images of an asteroid 360 million km (224 million miles) from earth, part of a space mission which scientists hope will help them understand the origins of the planets.
The images were transmitted to the control team in Darmstadt, Germany, by Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft which completed its flyby of the Steins asteroid, in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, late on Friday.
Steins was the first target for Rosetta in its more than eleven year mission to explore the nucleus of a far away comet.
Through the study of minor bodies, such as asteroids, Rosetta is opening up a new window onto the early history of the solar system, said the ESA in a statement.
“Steins looks like a diamond in the sky,” said Uwe Keller, Principal Investigator for the Osiris imaging system from the Max Planck Institute for solar system research in Lindau, Germany.
“Steins might be small, but we’re making big science here,” said David Southwood, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. “The better we learn to know the different kinds of asteroids, the better we will understand our origins in the past.”
He added that with enhanced knowledge, scientists hoped to mitigate the chances of asteroids becoming a threat to earth.
The ESA said the images showed several small craters on the asteroid and two huge ones, one of which is 2 km in diameter, indicating the asteroid must be very old.
Rosetta’s instruments have so far focused on the asteroid’s orbital motion, rotation, shape and density.
From the images, scientists will try to understand why the asteroid is unusually bright. Steins is a small asteroid of irregular shape with a diameter of only 4.6 km.
It belongs to a type of asteroid which probably came from larger asteroids destroyed in the early history of the solar system. They are believed to be composed mainly of silicate minerals with little or no iron content.
Rosetta was launched in March 2004. Since then, it has travelled about 3.7 thousand million km.
The highlight of the mission will be in late 2014 when it releases a landing vessel in the first attempt at a controlled landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Reporting by Madeline Chambers, editing by Diana Abdallah