Chinese Chang’E 2 Spacecraft Captures Toutatis

Chang’E 2 Images of Asteroid Toutatis on 13 December 2012
Image Credit:

Emily Lakdawalla, at the Planetary Society, published these stunning images of the asteroid Toutatis (captured by The Chinese spacecraft Chang’E 2) as it tumbled past the Earth on 12 and 13 December 2012.

Chang’E 2 was originally launched on 1 October 2010, and mapped the Moon during an eight month mission. China published these high resolution images of the Moon earlier this year. Now, Chang’E 2 has become the first spacecraft to reach the Sun-Earth Lagrange point (SEL-2) from lunar orbit. It departed lunar orbit in June of 2011.

The world was caught completely off-guard by this low profile fly-by of the asteroid Toutatis. At closest approach, Chang’E 2 was 3.2 kilometers above the surface of the asteroid. The images were taken from a distance of 93 and 240 kilometers. China becomes the fourth country to observe an asteroid, after US, the European Union and Japan.

In January, Chang’E 2 will reach a distance of 10 million kilometers from Earth.

Additional details have been published by Xinhua on their website, and at

In August, Bill Gray at the Planetary Society, published an update on the Chnag’E 2 mission.

Paolo, a member of the forum, reported in October concerning a paper he had obtained from the IAF Congress entitled “Low energy trajectory optimization for CE-2’s extended mission after 2012“. He did share these items from the paper:

  • 13 December 2012 is confirmed as the date. no distance nor relative speed or other details are given
  • we are told that the Beijing Aerospace Control Center called for proposals on a mission beyond L2 in January 2012
  • there were lots of interesting proposals including one that would flyby Earth and Moon repeatedly, visit the L1 and L2 Lagrangian points, flyby a hundred-meter sized asteroid and finally explore the L4 Sun-Earth point in 2017 (the paper states that CE-2 would have been the first mission to do so. I think one of the two Stereos was first)
  • in March 2012 the Toutatis flyby, proposed by the Chinese Academy of Space Technology was selected
  • in a non-optimized form, the mission would have cost 107.5 m/s of the remaining 120 m/s delta-v budget
  • a 6.2 m/s correction on 15 April “was mainly used to keep the Lissajous trajectory”. it was previously reported as the date CE-2 was maneuvered out of the L2 halo orbit
  • trajectory optimization was only carried out starting on 16 April. After optimization, an additional 22 m/s delta-v was gained that could be used to ensure a successful flyby
  • the first targeting maneuver was carried out on 31 May (32.9 m/s)
  • the second targeting maneuver (46.5 m/s) was to be carried out on 24 September

Sky and Telescope has also weighed in with unique information on the fly-by. The passage was so close that the deflection in the trajectory of the spacecraft could be used to determine the gravitational mass of Toutatis, which in turn would yield the overall density, a key to understanding its bulk composition and internal makeup.

edited: 5 PM 16 December 2012

Asteroid Toutatis Tumbles Past Earth

Radar Image of Asteroid Toutatis on 12 December 2012
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The asteroid Toutatis passed 18 lunar distances (6.9 million kilometers) away from the Earth on 12 and 13 December 2012. NASA has released a movie based on a series of radar images taken by the Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California.

Toutatis is an elongated asteroid with a maximum length of about 4.8 kilometers. It tumbles slowly, once every 5.4 days, and precesses like a badly thrown football around the long axis every 7.4 days.

Currently, its orbit will bring it back to the Earth’s neighborhood in 2069 and it will pass by at a distance of about 3 million kilometers.

Tracking Toutatis is the job of Near-Earth Object Observations Program. The program discovers and tracks asteroids and comets and plots their orbits to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.

An Asteroid Is Coming to a Planet Near You

2012 DA14
Fast Image Trail of Asteroid 2012 DA!14
Image Credit: Courtesy Jaime Nomen, La Sagra Observatory

On 15 February 2013, asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass within 22,500 kilometers of the Earth. Geostationary satellites orbit 35,800 kilometers above the surface.

This asteroid is roughly the same size as the object that burst over Tunguska Siberia in 1908.

Our friends at The Planetary Society provided the funds that allowed La Sagra Observatory in southern Spain to upgrade one of their telescopes with a new camera capable tracking fast moving objects like 2012 DA14, and determining their orbit. The new instrument has found more than ten Near-Earth Objects (NEO), along with a previously unknown comet.

The key to the new discoveries involve fast read-out Charge-Coupled Devices (CCD) and revised image filtering software used with the space-junk tracking program at La Sagra.


Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission has just released the image above showing Everything in the infrared spectrum. Approximately 560 million stars, galaxies, gas clouds, near-Earth asteroids and other objects are included in the image.

Visible in the image:

  • Large and Small Magellanic clouds to the bottom right
  • The Andromeda galaxy forms a small blue streak to the lower left
  • The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, only 130 light years away, above the galactic center

Is An Earth Trojan Asteroid the Logical Target for the “Flexible Path”?

Trojan Asteroid 2010 TK7
Asteroid 2010 TK7 is circled in green.
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA

Scientists using the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have discovered the first Trojan Asteroid in Earth orbit. Trojans orbit at a location in front of or behind a planet known as a Lagrange Point.

A video of the asteroid and its orbit at the Lagrange point can be found here.

Martin Connors of Athabasca University in Canada is the lead author of a new paper on the discovery in the July 28 issue of the journal Nature.

Connors notes that:

These asteroids dwell mostly in the daylight, making them very hard to see. But we finally found one, because the object has an unusual orbit that takes it farther away from the sun than what is typical for Trojans. WISE was a game-changer, giving us a point of view difficult to have at Earth’s surface.

TK7 is roughly 300 meters in diameter and traces a complex motion around SEL-4 (Sun Earth Lagrange point 4). The asteroid’s orbit is stable for at least the next 100 years and is currently about 80 million kilometers from the Earth. In that time, it is expected to come no closer that 24 million kilometers.

The obvious question is whether this is the logical destination for NASA’s Flexible Path manned asteroid mission? The Lagrange 4 point (SEL-4) is a logical way station on the Solar System exploration highway. Other NEO asteroids that have been identified as possible targets are few and much more difficult to reach and return than an asteroid at SEL-4. This may well be the target of opportunity that opens manned exploration of the Solar System in an “easy” mode. Unfortunately, Asteroid 2010 TK7 travels too far above and below the plane of Earth’s orbit, which would require large amounts of fuel to reach it.

NEOWISE is the program for searching the WISE database for Near Earth Objects (NEO), as well as other asteroids in the Solar System.The NEOWISE project observed more than 155,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and more than 500 NEOs, discovering 132 that were previously unknown.

Close Encounters

Asteroid CA7
Asteroid 2011 CA7
Image Credit: NASA / JPL

Asteroid 2011 CA7 made its closest approach to Earth yesterday, 9 February, passing inside the Moon's orbit.

NASA's Near-Earth Object Program tracks asteroids and comets that are in the Earth's neighborhood. And its a crowded neighborhood. The NEO Program publishes the Close Approach Table.

Earlier this week:

Asteroid 2011 CQ1 was discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey on February 4 and made a record close Earth approach 14 hours later on February 4 at 19:39 UT (14:39 EST). It passed to within 0.85 Earth radii (5480 km) of the Earth's surface over a region in the mid-Pacific. This object, only about one meter in diameter, is the closest non-impacting object in our asteroid catalog to date.

That's just over 3,200 miles above the surface of the Earth.

NASA – The New Course – Charles Bolden at the National Press Club

The National Press Club on NASA TV.

John Holdren introduces the implications of the new course based on NASA’s 2011 budget and Charles Bolden.

Bolden is speaking. NASA’s way forward. Thanks the teams that have worked Constellation for many years.

NASA will now be on a sustainable course.

We want to increase our understanding of the Earth and the Solar System.

A new path for exploring and living in space. $6 Billion in new funds for technology and research.

We have experienced a slow erosion of science missions within NASA. Therefore, this administration needs to re-baseline the science and other missions. 30 % increase in science. 60% increase in Earth science research.

Commercial partnerships with industry to produce safe reliable redundant access to low Earth orbit.

NASA’s role is to catalyze commercial operations and markets.

Industry already launches all our military and national security satellites. They also launch the high value commercial and civilian satellites and spacecraft.

Therefore, NASA is not putting its trust in unproven companies.

Commercial access to space and our international partners. This will let NASA focus on its key role of research on cutting edge technology.

Today, we will have SpaceX and Orbital discuss their roles with NASA. We will also introduce the five companies to whom we just awarded contracts for development:

  • Blue Origin of Kent, Washington. Robert Millman. Pusher Escape System. Composite Pressure Vessel.
  • The Boeing Company of Houston, Texas. Brewster Shaw. Partnership with Bigelow. System of cargo and crew transportation for commercial and NASA.
  • Paragon Space Development Corporation of Tucson, Arizona. Jane Poynter. Developing turnkey system for use on any spacecraft.
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation of Louisville, Colorado. Mark Sirangelo. Concept based on the HL20.
  • United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado. Mike Gass. Emergency protection system for Atlas and Delta rockets.
  • Orbital Systems. David Thompson. Private cargo systems within the next year.
  • Space X. Ken Bowersox. Cargo to ISS
Seven Commercial Partners
Credit: NASA TV
The Seven Commercial Partners

Q & A.

1. Goals? What is the timetable and the architecture?

More than a couple weeks but less than years to create the plans. The Moon, Mars, Asteroids are the logical destinations.

2. In orbit fueling? Primary or from Earth?

Being able to launch with a lighter vehicle. The problem is getting out of the gravity well. However, game changing technology: ion engines, VASIMR. Facilitate public discussion on goals and methods.

3. We are abandoning human space flight to the Chinese and others?

We are still the nation with whom everyone wants to partner. We are not abandoning human space flight. We will likely get there quicker than most people think.

4. Columbia accident board. NASA was stretched to thin? Lack of a National mandate?

Apollo 1. Challenger. Columbia. Continuing reminders. Take advantage of technology for destinations as it becomes available.

5. How to keep on budget?

Be a realistic dreamer. But plan to the budget, not try and budget for the plan. We have sufficient funds for what we want to do.

6. Astronauts on commercial vehicles? 60% of astronauts against commercial?

Stick with us if you can. If its not exciting enough, we will help you find your passion. And bear with them.

7. Involvement of Russian companies in partnerships?

Conversation yesterday with Anatoliy Permanov head of the Russian Space Agency Russia will remain a firm partner. Soyuz is excellent. But we will be without redundancy. Retirement of shuttle is the correct thing to do.

8. Job creation in commercial industry?

The more money our new partners receive, the more jobs. But there will be jobs lost and jobs gained. $6 Billion in new funds will translate to jobs.