Spacecraft snaps pictures of asteroid ahead of historic orbit
Scientists hope to learn more about Eros by comparing new snapshots (right) to 1998 images.
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
NEAR was launched in February 1996 as a joint project between
NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.
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