Spacecraft moves within 62 miles of asteroid
Recent images of Eros show (from top) the floor of an impact crater; the asteroid's north pole; and a boulder-rich indention known as "the saddle" (Click each image for a larger view)
LAUREL, Maryland -- NEAR Shoemaker moved this week to an orbit about 62 miles (100 km) from the asteroid Eros, allowing the robot ship to take the closest pictures yet of the irregularly shaped space rock, mission managers said.
A five-second engine burn nudged the NASA orbiter into its current circular position. At the time of the April 11 maneuver, the spacecraft and asteroid were about 128 million miles (206 million km) from Earth.
The spacecraft will remain in the orbit for 11 days, moving three times around the asteroid at just under 5 miles per hour. The asteroid is roughly twice the size of Manhattan.
After NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) Shoemaker fires its thrusters again on April 22, it will gradually descend until it reaches a 31 mile (50 km) orbit on April 30. That distance marks the "prime scientific orbit" for the spacecraft, according to mission scientists.
Since becoming the first manmade satellite around an asteroid on February 14, NEAR Shoemaker has circled Eros five times and dropped to increasingly lower orbits. At the end of its yearlong study in 2001, mission managers may attempt to briefly land the spacecraft on the surface of Eros.
NEAR data on the asteroid's surface, shape and composition have exceeded early expectations, according to project researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland.
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