Orbiter moves closer to asteroid Eros
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)
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
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