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Orbiter moves closer to asteroid Eros

February 25, 2000
Web posted at: 3:23 p.m. EST (2023 GMT)

LAUREL, Maryland (CNN) -- The first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid is gradually descending closer to the space rock known as Eros. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous robot ship should begin orbiting the oblong asteroid from a distance of 124 miles (200 kilometers) on March 3, project managers said.

Scientists hope the $224 million mission will offer key clues on the origins of the solar system and on how to protect Earth from catastrophic collisions with other large space objects.

Since beginning a yearlong orbit on February 14, NEAR already has beamed back pictures of unprecedented clarity and provided a wealth of data. NASA scientists studying geologic features in the images have speculated that the space rock broke off from a small planet eons ago.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 
  IMAGE GALLERY
 

Images obtained last week from a distance of 224 miles (361 kilometers) show surface details as small as 115 feet (35 meters) across.

Asteroid moves like a tumbling potato

NEAR performed a short engine burn Thursday to descend toward a tighter orbit around Eros. Throughout its mission, NEAR will move into increasingly lower orbits. Late in the year, the craft may briefly land on Eros, then photograph the mark it leaves.

But the approach could prove perilous. The asteroid moves in its eccentric orbit around the sun like a tumbling potato. NEAR could smack into the asteroid or get flung out into deep space if it experiences flight trouble, a project scientist said.

Project scientists planned to turn on two additional NEAR instruments this week: A laser scanner to help calculate Eros' exact shape and a spectrometer to determine its chemical composition. Other onboard instruments are measuring density and magnetic fields.

NEAR is managed by The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

The spacecraft took four years to travel from Earth to Eros, which circles the sun from a distance of 160 million miles (260 million km).




RELATED STORIES:
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February 17, 2000
Spacecraft zooms in on potato-shaped asteroid
February 16, 2000
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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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