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Encore flight mulled for amazing asteroid lander

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The last and closest image of asteroid Eros as the NEAR spacecraft touched down. The streaky lines at the bottom indicate loss of signal as the spacecraft touched down on the asteroid during transmission of this image.  
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Check out NASA's movie simulation of NEAR-Shoemaker's risky descent to Eros

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LAUREL, Maryland (CNN) - What next for NEAR-Shoemaker? On the morning after the NASA robot ship made the first landing on an asteroid, mission scientists were trying to figure out how much more science they could squeeze from the small craft.

One of several options being debated: firing up the thrusters for a short encore flight. But NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) managers said that would happen no earlier than Wednesday.

Instead, they planned to spend Tuesday looking at the data stream sent from their half-ton spacecraft, some 196 million miles (315 million km) away.

The information so far indicates NEAR-Shoemaker is alive, well and generating plenty of power from its solar panels. It is an astounding outcome no one predicted. The vessel was not designed to land.

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The team is taking its time deciding on a possible liftoff from the asteroid Eros, an oddly shaped space rock 21 miles (34 km) in length.

Once they fire the rocket thrusters, there is a strong likelihood they will not hear from the probe again. A second landing might very well damage the craft or knock its antenna or solar arrays out of alignment.

There is little time for debate. NASA will cut off NEAR- Shoemaker's access to the tracking system known as the Deep Space Network at on Wednesday at 7 p.m. EST, ending the five-year NEAR mission.

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Picture of the surface of Eros captured by the NEAR spacecraft during its landing descent  

The NEAR team, located at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, conducted the asteroid landing to gain "bonus science" after an already successful mission.

During its yearlong orbit of Eros, NEAR-Shoemaker beamed a colossal amount of information about the asteroid, including 160,000 images of its surface. It was 10 times more data than scientists anticipated.

The automobile-sized craft sent back about 100 images during its descent on Monday, offering the closest look yet at an asteroid. The images are able to resolve objects as small as a centimeter.



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RELATED SITES:
Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Near Earth Object Program
NASA

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