NEAR spacecraft dips closer to asteroid
Two views of a single crater on Eros
(CNN) -- Even sharper, closer images of the oblong space rock called Eros are in store as the robotic NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft moves into a tighter orbit around the asteroid, mission managers said this week.
The NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) spacecraft fired its thrusters for about 40 seconds Saturday and began gradually descending into position to start a 62-mile (100-kilometer) orbit on April 11.
Since March 3, NEAR Shoemaker has been in a nearly circular orbit some 127 miles (205 kilometers) from the center of asteroid Eros.
NEAR team members say halving the spacecraft's distance to the rotating space rock will yield sharper images of the abundant geological features on the asteroid's surface, giving them a chance to learn more about the relationship between the many ridges, grooves and craters.
Over the weekend, a pair of images were posted on the NEAR Web site that demonstrate how lighting and viewing geometries can make a big difference in the appearance of the asteroid's surface features.
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In the first image, a crater is seen from nearly edge-on. The only visible part of its interior is the far, bright wall, which at the time was well-lit. The lighting, in combination with the viewing angle, make the crater appear strikingly bright.
In the second view, the brighter material occupies only part of the slightly shaded interior, greatly reducing the overall brightness contrast between the crater and the surrounding terrain.
The NEAR spacecraft is managed for NASA by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
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