Image: Asteriod Lutetia
European Space Agency
The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft took this image of the asteroid Lutetia during a flyby on July 10, 2010.
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updated 8/10/2010 5:34:12 PM ET 2010-08-10T21:34:12

A European space probe has beamed back a haunting image of an alien space rock with unique angles and surface coating that raises more questions about asteroids than it answers.

The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft recently flew by Lutetia, a huge asteroid midway along Rosetta's path to its ultimate destination, the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it is due to reach in 2014.

Near-Earth objects are a topic of growing interest to scientists. A two-day NASA workshop in Washington, D.C., this week is tackling topics such as what to do about space rocks that could threaten Earth, as well as how to transport astronauts to an asteroid for exploration — a goal under President Barack Obama's vision for the space agency.

Missions like Rosetta's could help scientists learn more about space rocks and inform these and other goals.

At about 62 miles wide, Lutetia was the largest asteroid yet visited by a spacecraft.

A close approach to Lutetia allowed the probe to snap photos and measurements using 17 different onboard instruments. The results paint a picture of a strange asteroid indeed.

I've never seen anything like it," said Claudia Alexander, project scientist for the U.S. Rosetta Project. "It looked as though it could have been fractured off of a mother asteroid — it was all angles and flat planes, ancient impacts overlaid by newer ones, covered by dust of some kind."

More mysteries
One giant dent in the asteroid's side was particularly puzzling. Alexander guessed that some other space rock had collided with Lutetia long ago.

The surface of Lutetia also had an odd appearance, as if some large boulders had rolled over it.

"If that is indeed what we're seeing, the question becomes: What could have caused the rolling?" Alexander said. "Perhaps the asteroid spun up, spun down or experienced some orbital irregularity. It's not clear right now that the asteroid is subject to the forces that could cause these things. This is another issue for further study."

Astronomers have been interested in Lutetia for years because it is one of the largest asteroids in the solar system. The light reflecting off of it produces a pattern unlike that of any other asteroid that has been studied.

"Right now we have more questions than answers," Alexander said. "We can only speculate at this point about what we're seeing in the pictures."

Asteroids revealed
Scientists expect the data from Rosetta's visit to help them calculate the asteroid's mass and density, which could reveal more about its creation and composition.

One idea posits that Lutetia was born when a planet broke apart billions of years ago. Or maybe this bit of rock was a leftover from the beginning of the solar system — a fragment of planet-building material, called a planetesimal, that never got used to create a larger body.

During the coming months astronomers will analyze the trove of information provided by Rosetta to begin assembling some answers.

"When all the data are analyzed, Lutetia will be one of the best-known asteroids out there," said Rita Schulz, ESA project scientist for the Rosetta Mission. "These spectacular images are just the beginning."

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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