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Image of the surface of asteroid Eros taken by NEAR on October 26 from a distance of about 6 miles (10 km)  
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Watch the latest Eros flyover movie

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Space probe swoops within 3 miles of asteroid

(CNN) -- An unmanned NASA spacecraft swooped within miles of a near-Earth asteroid on Thursday, snapping close-ups of an object known to astronomers for more than a century.

The NEAR-Shoemaker ship began its descent on Tuesday from an orbit of 31 miles (50 km). The craft dived to within three miles (5.3 km) of the surface, the closest spacecraft approach ever to an asteroid.

"Our proximity to Eros will be the equivalent of the cruising altitude of a commuter airplane on Earth," said Robert Farquhar, the NEAR mission director, in a statement.

The NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) team expects to obtain sharp pictures of rocks as small as two feet across as well as ridges and craters in "exquisite detail," said project scientist Andrew Cheng.

The spacecraft has already pieced together an impressive map of the surface since it began orbiting the asteroid eight months ago.

Released this week, the map proposes names of famous lovers from history and mythology for prominent features, including Lolita, Don Juan and Psyche, the last referring to a conspicuous white spot.

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Mosaic of four frames taken by the NEAR spacecraft as it looked down on the "saddle" region of asteroid Eros  

The NEAR team this week also posted the latest serial movie shot by NEAR-Shoemaker as it orbits Eros, a rock twice the size of Manhattan that tumbles through an eccentric orbit.

Like many of its predecessors, the video documents the dramatic shift between day and night and reveals legions of craters, haunting ridgelines and an odd saddle-shaped depression.

After snapping pictures and making scientific observations during its close approach, NEAR-Shoemaker will begin climbing to an orbit of 125 miles (200 km) for a month. The automobile-sized ship will conclude its yearlong mission in February with an attempt to briefly touch down on Eros.




RELATED STORIES:
Spacecraft gets closest look yet at asteroid
July 18, 2000
Summer lets orbiter see asteroid Eros in new light
June 27, 2000
Asteroid Eros resembles 'building blocks' of Earth
May 31, 2000
NASA unveils quartet of asteroid movies
April 28, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission
NASA


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