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NASA unveils quartet of asteroid movies

The longtime battering of Eros' surface has produced an amazing variety of landforms in which craters overlap each other, according to mission researchers. This NEAR Shoemaker image of asteroid Eros was taken April 5, 2000, from an orbital height of 66 miles (106 km)  

April 28, 2000
Web posted at: 12:37 p.m. EDT (1637 GMT)

LAUREL, Maryland (CNN) -- NASA this week debuted a four-part movie marathon of noir dramas centering on an asteroid more than 100 million miles from Earth.

NEAR Shoemaker should begin a new phase of its study of the space rock Eros soon. It will descend to within 31 miles (50 km) of the asteroid, the ideal orbiting distance for its scientific investigation, mission researchers said.

The NASA robot ship obtained the series of flyover movies in March while orbiting Eros from a distance of about 125 miles (200 km). Its imager captured each part of the asteroid under changing lighting conditions, highlighting lights and darks along different surface features like gaping craters, fields of boulders and a pronounced dip known as "the saddle."

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The first movie showcases one end of the asteroid pockmarked by craters, sculpted by linear grooves and littered with boulders about 50 meters (165 feet) across.

For the second, NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) Shoemaker trained its lens on the saddle, a part of Eros that exhibits few impact craters. This relative smoothness suggests the area's relative youth compared to other parts of the asteroid, project scientist Andrew Cheng said.

The third sequence focuses on the 3.4-mile (5.5-km) diameter crater that dominates one hemisphere on the asteroid. The lighting in the crater's interior changes significantly during the 1.5 hours of elapsed time in the movie, but the brightness of the far wall remains constant.

"This type of behavior distinguishes real variations in surface brightness from mere lighting effects," the NEAR mission team said in a statement.

The finale blends together two stars of the earlier pieces. It begins near the edge of the large crater in movie three and travels to the middle of the saddle, which dominates the opposite hemisphere in film two.

Approaching prime scientific orbit

A short engine burn on April 22 nudged NEAR Shoemaker from a distance of 62-miles (100-km) toward its ideal scientific orbit around Eros. It should reach that altitude on April 30.

All six of the spacecraft's instruments have been operating for several weeks. But the laser rangefinder and X-ray gamma ray spectrometer will work best from the closer orbit, according to mission scientists.

The performance of the other instruments should improve as well as NEAR Shoemaker moves in closer to the 21-mile-long (34-km-long) rotating space rock. Later in the year, the spacecraft could move in even closer and briefly touch down to conclude its primary mission, scientists said.

Currently, Eros and its artificial satellite are about 119 million miles (190 million km) from Earth.




RELATED STORIES:
Spacecraft moves within 62 miles of asteroid
April 14, 2000
NEAR spacecraft dips closer to asteroid
April 3, 2000
NASA releases 2nd movie of asteroid Eros
March 27, 2000
Asteroid orbiter returns bounty of data, images
March 14, 2000
NEAR tightens orbit, beams asteroid with laser
March 3, 2000

RELATED SITES:
NASA Homepage
Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission

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