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Planetary Society Advent Calendar for December 8: Itokawa

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

08-12-2009 12:50 CST

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I love this asteroid. It's just so weird-looking. And yet it may be quite typical of the solar system -- there are probably many more objects in the solar system that look like misshapen, bouldery Itokawa than look like anything else ever visited by a spacecraft. In an imagined sci-fi future where astro-mining spaceships (crewed or, more plausible I think, robotic) grapple asteroids to mine them for metals or water, we'd be seeing a lot of little nameless bodies like this one.

Or perhaps not. Every time we visit an asteroid, we see something that looks completely different from the previously visited ones. And when I consider just how few asteroids have been visited compared to the thousands and thousands that are out there, I can't wait for what the next asteroid mission will discover.

Itokawa's "otter" shape was photographed by Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft from September through November 2005. All of the images were released to the public in April 2007, and I converted them and posted them all here for people to play with. I enjoy just browsing that page to see how Itokawa's rotation makes the asteroid appear all kinds of funny different shapes. This color portrait of Itokawa was created from the raw images by Ricardo Nunes.

Itokawa in color

JAXA / ISAS / color composite by Ricardo Nunes

Itokawa in color
Hayabusa captured the three images for this true-color view of Itokawa on September 19, 2005. Itokawa is the smallest asteroid that has been visited by a spacecraft at 535 by 294 by 209 meters.

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