A European comet-chasing spacecraft will zip by a large asteroid in July, snapping pictures all the way and potentially unlocking some of the mysteries surrounding the space rock.
The Rosetta spacecraft, operated by the European Space Agency (), is set to fly past asteroid Lutetia July 10. At closest approach, Rosetta will come roughly within 3,200 kilometers of the space rock.
The flyby will give Rosetta an approximately two-hour window of opportunity to take the first up-close images of Lutetia and immediately beam them back to Earth. Rosetta has been taking navigational sightings of the asteroid since late May so its ground controllers could determine if any course corrections would be needed to achieve the intended flyby distance.
In 2008, Rosetta flew by a different asteroid, called Steins, and a few other space missions have also encountered asteroids. Each encounter has led to different findings, and scientists are hoping that observations from the Lutetia flyby will contribute to the relatively small body of knowledge about asteroids.