China's Probe Chang'e 2 Did a Fly-By of Asteroid Toutatis, in Deep Space
December 16, 2012 • 9:39AM

China announced today that its deep space probe Chang'e 2, performed a successful fly-by, on Dec. 13 of the asteroid Toutatis, about 7 million km away from the Earth. This maneuver is a first for China, and makes it the fourth space agency, after the United States, the European Union, and Japan, which have sent spacecraft to examine asteroids.

Toutatis is a near-Earth object that's big enough to cause a mass extinction if it were to hit our planet, but it isn't projected to come all that near in the foreseeable future. This week, it passed by Earth at a minimum distance of 4.3 million miles (7 million km).

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory also conducted a series of radar observations using the Goldstone radio antenna in California, and yesterday, JPL released a grainy time-lapse video showing Toutatis' rotation.

Officials at the China State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense said today that Chang'e 2 buzzed past the 3-mile-long (5 km) asteroid at a relative speed of 24,000 mph (10.73 km/sec). The flyby was the first time an unmanned spacecraft from Earth has taken such a close viewing of the asteroid, named after a Celtic god.

Chang'e 2 was launched in 2010 primarily to serve as a lunar orbiter, but after a successful mission at the Moon, the $132 million spacecraft was re-purposed as a deep-space explorer. The encounter with Toutatis had been planned for months, but Chinese media kept back the results until today.