Spacecraft makes improbable landing on asteroid
(CNN) -- A NASA robot ship ended a deep space odyssey by touching down on an asteroid on Monday, despite having no landing gear.
Shortly after the first landing on an asteroid, excited mission managers were considering an almost unthinkable encore: coaxing the NEAR-Shoemaker craft from its resting spot for another flight.
NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) engineers should decide within hours after landing whether to command the resilient robot to fire up its thrusters for a return to space, mission director Robert Farquhar said.
"I am happy to report that the NEAR has touched down. We are still getting signals. It is still transmitting from the surface," said Farquhar as NEAR engineers cheered and clapped their hands.
Before colliding with the space rock, some 196 million miles (315 million km) from Earth, the NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft beamed back pictures with unprecedented clarity of the asteroid. NASA scientists hope to see features as small as a human hand when they process the images in the coming hours and days.
Mission astronomers didn't expect the $225 million orbiter to survive the impact. It was designed to study, not land, on Eros, an oddly shaped rock whose appearance has been likened to everything from a potato to a kidney bean. But somehow against all odds it survived the landing and sent a radio message back home.
Mission engineers think NEAR-Shoemaker landed on its side on a sunlit landing site between the South Pole and a distinctive saddle-shaped depression.
NEAR-Shoemaker began descending toward the asteroid in the morning, drifting toward its rocky companion and using its thrusters to brake several times after closing to within 3 miles (5 km) of Eros.
The spacecraft snapped dozens of pictures in its final hour, the closest only several hundred yards away, NEAR scientists said. It likely smacked into the surface at about 5 mph (8 km/h), according to NEAR scientists, a speed similar to that of a parachutist hitting the ground.
Its yearlong mission over, its budget exhausted, its fuel spent, NEAR-Shoemaker was sent on the deadly dive to gain "bonus science," said Farquhar.
NEAR scientists have puzzled over strange surface features first spotted in images in October. They hope the close-ups taken by the spacecraft will help to answer their questions about the geology of the asteroid more than 196 million miles from Earth.
'Another door has opened'
Some unexplained erosion processes seem to have taken place on Eros, according to team scientist Joseph Veverka.
"Suddenly we started seeing things we didn't expect and hadn't seen on other surfaces in the solar system," the Cornell University astronomer said. "It's like another door has opened."
Already the spacecraft has sent home a bonanza of data about the composition, gravity and appearance of Eros, which it zapped with 11 million laser pulses and photographed almost 200,000 times.
The pictures reveal a haunting panorama with fields of craters, mysterious bright spots and boulders the size of soccer fields. Some have been turned into dramatic movies of NEAR's close-up view as it swooped near the surface of the revolving rock.
The data has given scientists clues about the history of the solar system. Eros is considered a geologic relic from the infancy of the solar system, which formed about 4.5 billion years ago.
It could also prevent a future catastrophe. The 21-mile-long (34-km) Eros belongs to a group of large asteroids with orbits relatively close to Earth, like the one that scientists speculate slammed into Earth and killed off the dinosaurs 67 million years ago.
Scientists warn that there is a remote risk another such killer asteroid will someday hit Earth. Learning about Eros could offer them clues to prevent such a catastrophic collision.
Named after famed astronomer Eugene Shoemaker, a pioneer in lunar and asteroid studies, NEAR-Shoemaker traveled about 2 billion miles (3.2 billion km) during a trek that lasted five years.
It was supposed to reach Eros in 1998 but a software glitch sparked a costly engine misfire that pushed back its arrival time until February 14, 2000. Eros became only the fifth celestial body touched by a human spacecraft, following the Moon, Mars, Venus and Jupiter.
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