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Lucky lander clings to life on asteroid

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.  

(CNN) -- The NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft will remain alive on the space rock Eros until at least the end of the month, NASA said this week. Despite having no landing gear, the probe on February 12th became the first to land on an asteroid.

The space agency planned to pull the plug on the NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) probe on February 14, but granted it a ten-day stay of execution after its improbable landing.

This week the $200 million probe was again granted a reprieve, this time until February 28.

NASA extended the mission to allow an instrument aboard NEAR- Shoemaker to collect more data about the composition of the 21- mile-long (34 km) Eros.


Check out NASA's movie simulation of NEAR-Shoemaker's risky descent to Eros

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The NEAR team will have at least two more opportunities to download this information through NASA's heavily used Deep Space Network of antennas.

"The longer you accumulate data the more you can reduce the uncertainty of your results. When you look at a little bit of data you see clues, but when you get more data down you can be a bit more definitive," NASA scientist Jacob Trombka said in a statement.

NEAR researchers will need months or years to make sense of the information collected by NEAR-Shoemaker, which beamed back 160,000 images and an exhausting amount of data during a yearlong orbit around Eros, an oddly shaped asteroid likened to a kidney bean or peanut.

Its fuel and funding supplies exhausted, NEAR-Shoemaker was commanded to land on February 12 and take pictures during the descent.

Somehow it managed to land and keep radio communications with Earth. Mission scientists had given the craft a 1 percent chance of survival. The closest image was taken only 394 feet (120 meters) from the surface.

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.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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