Rosetta spacecraft probes Lutetia asteroid
The Rosetta spacecraft has captured the first, high-quality pictures of the "Lutetia" asteroid.
The probe also searched for evidence of a highly tenuous atmosphere and magnetic effects, while studying surface composition as well as density.
According to Holger Sierks of the Max Planck Institute, Lutetia is "heavily cratered" from sustaining multiple impacts over the course of its 4.5 billion years of existence.
"As Rosetta drew close, a giant bowl-shaped depression stretching across much of the asteroid rotated into view. The images confirm that Lutetia is an elongated body, with its longest side around 130km," said Sierks.
"I think this is a very old object. Tonight we have seen a remnant of the Solar System's creation."
Indeed, Lutetia has remained a mystery for many years, with ground-based telescopes often presenting confusing characteristics.
In some respects, Lutetia resembles a 'C-type' asteroid - a primitive body left over from the formation of the Solar System.
In others, it looks like an 'M-type,' which is associated with iron meteorites typically reddish in appearance and thought to be "core fragments" of much larger objects.
The new images and the data will help scientists determine a definite classification for Lutetia sometime in the near future.
In the meantime, the ESA-designed Rosetta is on its way to a 2014 rendezvous with the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet.
The probe will accompany the comet for months, from near the orbit of Jupiter down to its closest approach to the Sun.
Rosetta is then expected to launch the Philae lander, which has been tasked with exploring the surface of the comet's nucleus.