Is it just me, or does the European Space Agency (ESA) employ an aspiring soap opera screenwriter to produce its highly entertaining press releases? Last week, we were treated to the breathless announcement of the Rosetta spacecraft‘s pending “blind date” with an asteroid named Lutetia on July 10th. One can almost hear the sorority school giggling in sentences like this: “Rosetta does not yet know what Lutetia looks like, but beautiful or otherwise, the two will meet… on a Saturday night.”
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Anyone who’s ever been on a blind date knows this is a scenario just primed for crushing disappointment. First of all, “Lutetia” is a name that screams “High-Maintenance Asteroid with Entitlement Issues.” And scientists have no idea what she looks like, although ground-based telescopes have offered a few clues, like the fact that the asteroid is rotating. The poor thing has an “uneven surface” and is (ahem) “quite large” — as much as 134 kilometers in diameter — possibly with a “pronounced elongation.”
That doesn’t sound too promising, but perhaps her beauty is more about substance than superficial style. And that’s bad news for Lutetia, because Rosetta is a bit of a player. Sure, it’s been called the “comet chaser,” since its been betrothed since birth to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. But the spacecraft isn’t due to reach that “mini ice world” until 2014, and it was launched in 2004. It gets lonely in deep space. So who can blame Rosetta for dabbling in a mild flirtation with asteroid Steins in 2008, for example, and any other pretty little rocks it might encounter along the way?
One of the scientific questions the date with Rosetta could answer is
whether Lutetia is a “C-type” asteroid — containing simple compounds
of carbon, and hence “a primitive asteroid left on the shelf for
billions of years because no planet consumed it as the Solar System
formed.” Yeah, that’s right: Lutetia could be an old maid, the asteroid
no solar system really wanted.
Then again, maybe Lutetia is, instead,
that rarest of “M-type” asteroids, with lots of metals in her surface.
That would make her “a real winner,” in the words of ESA’s Rosetta
Project Scientist Rita Schultz. It would be like discovering the heavyset Plain Jane your folks fixed you up with is heiress to an enormous fortune or something.
This might explain why Rosetta’s had its eyes on Lutetia for awhile now,
stalking the poor unsuspecting asteroid since the end of May.
“Navigational sightings?” Hah! And the ESA openly admits that once the
“date” is underway, Rosetta will be beaming tons of observational data
back to earth. In fact, we can all be terrestrial voyeurs and watch the whole thing via Rosetta’s blog. “The first pictures will be released later that
evening,” the press release assures us. Before you know it, Lutetia’s likeness will be plastered all
over Rosetta’s Facebook page, where other asteroids can leave rude
comments and make not-so-subtle innuendos.
I think we can all guess how things will end then: Rosetta will keep trying to “collect more data” from Lutetia, but its efforts will be in vain, as the asteroid spins off on her merry way in search of a spacecraft who loves her for herself, and not for her metals — or another rare M-type asteroid more suited to her celestial station. So here’s a word of advice to Rosetta: dude, move on to the next asteroid already, or better yet, save yourself for your intended comet. Because Lutetia is a little out of your league. And frankly, she’s just not that into you.
Image credit: ESA