The State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) announced last weekend that Chang’e-2, a repurposed Chinese lunar orbiter, has flown by asteroid Toutatis on December 13 at 16:30:09 Beijing Time. During the flyby, it came as close as 3.2 km from the asteroid.
Chang’e-2 is part of China’s three-phase lunar exploration effort (read our overview of China’s space program here – in Dutch only). Its primary mission was to look for suitable landing sites in preparation of the Chang’e-3 lander mission set to launch next year. After completing its primary mission, the spacecraft left its lunar orbit for the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian point (a point in the plane of orbit of one body around another (i.e., the Earth around the Sun) at which a small third body can remain stationary with respect to both) to evaluate China’s deep space tracking and control network. In April this year, it left the L2 position to rendezvous with Toutatis. Chang’e-2 will continue its deep space travel.
Toutatis has been making close approaches to Earth at four-year intervals and has been frequently observed by radar. The next opportunity for radar imaging of Toutatis will occur in late 2016/early 2017. The next time Toutatis will approach at least this close to Earth is in November 2069.