Asteroid orbiter returns bounty of data, images
Image showing Eros' shadowed feature, taken from a distance of 204 km (127 miles).
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,
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:
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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
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
Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission
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