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Asteroid orbiter returns bounty of data, images

Image showing Eros' shadowed feature, taken from a distance of 204 km (127 miles).  

March 14, 2000
Web posted at: 4:48 p.m. EST (2148 GMT)

In this story:

New name honors pioneering scientist

Moving in for possible touchdown


LAUREL, Maryland -- Only one month into its yearlong orbit of asteroid Eros, a NASA spacecraft has already returned an astounding wealth of images and data from the space rock, scientists say.

Mission managers this week renamed the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous craft to honor a science legend, and offered a public review of the first month's accomplishments. Among them:

  • The spacecraft performed an X-ray scan of the asteroid, detecting magnesium, iron, and silicon and possibly aluminum and calcium.

    On March 2, when NEAR was 131 miles (212 kilometers) from Eros, a bright solar flare allowed the craft's X-ray instrument to view the asteroid from much farther away than planned.

    "The solar X-ray burst caused elements on the asteroid to react and emit fluorescent X-rays that were measured by the spectrometer," NASA scientist Jacob I. Trombka said in a statement.

    The 600-second window of opportunity offered "a huge bonus" for the mission. "This detection at the higher orbit gives us confidence in our ability to develop elemental maps when we're at our operational orbit of 50 kilometers," he said.

  • NEAR team members have found evidence that Eros broke off from a much larger, perhaps planetary object. High-resolution images are surprising scientists by the abundance of ridges, craters and boulders, NASA said.

    The spacecraft's laser instruments have started to measure topographic profiles of pits and craters of the potato-shaped rock, twice the size of Manhattan.

    "As we accumulate more data we will be able to determine if the features are from erosion, fault lines, tectonic stress lines, or other events," NASA scientist Maria T. Zuber said in a statement.

  • Mission managers released the first color picture of the asteroid, showing it has a slight butterscotch hue. Scientist said the coloring is consistent with the variety of minerals thought to compose Eros.

    New name honors pioneering scientist

    On Tuesday, mission scientists renamed the craft NEAR-Shoemaker to honor Eugene M. Shoemaker, who influenced decades of research on the role of asteroids and comets in forming the planets.

    "Gene Shoemaker was an inspirational, charismatic pioneer in the field of interplanetary science," said Carl B. Pilcher, NASA Science Director for Solar System Exploration, who announced the renaming.

    Shoemaker died in a 1997 car accident on a trip to study asteroid impact craters in Australia. He and his wife Carolyn were part of a leading comet discovery team, perhaps best known for spotting a comet that broke up and collided with Jupiter in 1994.

    Shoemaker served on a panel that formulated science objectives and designed a conceptual payload for the NEAR mission. Many of the group's recommended instruments flew on the actual spacecraft.

    Moving in for possible touchdown

    After a four-year journey, NEAR began orbiting Eros on February 14, St. Valentine's Day -- an appropriate date to rendezvous with an asteroid named after the god of love.

    In recent days, the spacecraft has been in a nearly circular orbit around Eros, traveling approximately 124 miles (200 kilometers) from the asteroid's center.

    The car-sized spacecraft will observe the asteroid from increasingly closer orbits. On April 1, it will begin dropping to a 62-mile (100-kilometer) orbit.

    Before the mission ends next February, the craft is expected to descend to within several miles (kilometers) of the surface and could briefly touch down on its surface.

    The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, manages the NEAR mission for NASA.

    NEAR tightens orbit, beams asteroid with laser
    March 3, 2000
    Orbiter moves closer to asteroid Eros
    February 25, 2000
    'Stunning' images hint asteroid broke from a planet
    February 17, 2000
    NASA releases first color image of asteroid
    February 17, 2000
    Spacecraft zooms in on potato-shaped asteroid
    February 16, 2000
    Spacecraft begins Valentine's Day tryst with asteroid
    February 14, 2000
    Spacecraft snaps pictures of asteroid ahead of historic orbit
    February 9, 2000
    Rock hunter finds second Mars meteorite known in U.S.
    February 4, 2000

    NASA Homepage
    Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission

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