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Spacecraft snaps pictures of asteroid ahead of historic orbit

Astroid
Scientists hope to learn more about Eros by comparing new snapshots (right) to 1998 images.  

February 9, 2000
Web posted at: 4:54 PM EST (2154 GMT)

LAUREL, Maryland -- The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous craft is on course to become the first space vehicle to orbit an asteroid. On Valentine's Day it will begin a yearlong journey tagging along with Eros, a rock twice the size of Manhattan.

The NASA craft, which is less than a few thousand miles (kilometers) from Eros, began Wednesday sending the best images ever of the potato-shaped asteroid, scientists said. The previous bests were snapped as NEAR flew by the asteroid in late 1998.

"The images are down and they look great," said project scientist Andy Cheng.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

NEAR will study chemical and physical traits of Eros while in orbit for a year. Its data will offer clues about the evolution of asteroids, comets and the solar system, according to mission managers at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

The spacecraft performed one last engine burn Tuesday before the rendezvous, changing its speed from 18 mph to 22 mph relative to Eros.

When NEAR is about 207 miles (333 kilometers) from Eros on February 14, it will slow down to allow the asteroid's slight gravity field to capture the spacecraft. Project members expect to verify the orbit at 11:30 a.m. EST.

"No one has ever orbited a small body in space," Dr. Robert Farquhar, NEAR mission director, said in a statement. "The orbital stability is rather tenuous, and as we travel around Eros our navigation maneuvers must be perfect to keep us from crashing into it."

The spacecraft has already measured the asteroid at 21 miles long by 8 miles wide and 8 miles deep. Comprised of silicate rock, Eros rolls through an eccentric orbit like a tumbling potato.

NEAR was launched in February 1996 as a joint project between NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.



RELATED STORIES:
Rock hunter finds second Mars meteorite known in U.S.
February 4, 2000
NEAR craft changes course for upcoming asteroid rendezvous
February 3, 2000
Scientists reduce odds of Earth-asteroid collision
July 28, 1999
Spacecraft set for risky asteroid flyby
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RELATED SITES:
Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission
NASA Homepage
Asteroid Comet Impact Hazards
The Spacewatch Project
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Impact of an Asteroid off the New York Coast
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