Space probe flies by asteroid

The Rosetta deep space probe passed close to an asteroid 250 million miles from Earth, the European Space Agency said Friday.

In a mission that may bring man closer to solving the mystery of the solar system's birth, the craft completed its flyby of the Steins asteroid, also known as Asteroid 2867, in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Images and other data collected as Rosetta flew just under 500 miles from the asteroid, which is roughly 3 miles across, would quickly start beaming back to the Earth and the first results should be released today, the ESA said.

The timing of the flyby meant the asteroid was illuminated by the sun, making it likely the transmitted images will be clear and sharp for scientists working on the origins of the solar system.

“Dead rocks can say a lot,” mission manager Gerhard Schwehm said.

Astronomers have had to work with limited data from previous passes of asteroids, such as when the ESA's Giotto probe swept by Halley's comet in 1986, photographing long canyons, broad craters and 3,000-foot hills.

Steins was Rosetta's first scientific target as it flies in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter en route to its main destination, the comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is scheduled for 2014. The probe was launched in March 2004.