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NEAR spacecraft sends back new photos of Earth

Southern Hemisphere
NEAR passed within 336 miles of Earth and took these pictures of the Southern Hemisphere  

'We can learn more from the big guys'

January 26, 1998
Web posted at: 11:19 p.m. EST (0419 GMT)

From Reporter Rick Lockridge

(CNN) -- A tiny NASA spacecraft completed a flyby of Earth before being hurled deep into space, and as it passed by it captured on film some captivating new images of the planet.

The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous spacecraft -- NEAR, for short -- passed within 336 miles of Earth and took numerous photographs while gathering momentum from Earth's gravity.

Flight of the NEAR
video icon 1.1MB/33 sec./160x120
QuickTime movie

The photos include a shot of the Earth looking like a gray and white cat's-eye marble, a close-up of the Southern Hemisphere and a rare picture of the Earth and moon in the same frame.

NEAR is now well on its way to a rendezvous with 433 Eros, an asteroid 14 million miles from Earth that has a tricky orbit slightly out of whack with the orbits of the major planets.

"It's hard to get into that orbit," says David Dunham of the Applied Physics Laboratory. "If you go directly from Earth, you would need a very large rocket."

Eros simulation
The expected path NEAR is to take around 433 Eros  

Instead, using Earth's gravity to create a slingshot effect will do the trick, putting NEAR on course to spend a year examining the 25-mile-long silicate rock, which rolls through its eccentric orbit like a tumbling potato.

The spacecraft, said Dunham, will be "measuring its composition, measuring what it's made of ... and mapping its surface thoroughly."

'We can learn more from the big guys'

NEAR was launched in February 1996 as another of NASA's so-called "faster, better, cheaper" missions -- scientific explorations that don't take long to unfold and can be accomplished on relatively tight budgets.

Its first task on its four-year mission was to visit the asteroid Mathilda, an extremely dark object that reflects only 4 percent of the sunlight that hits it.

But Dunham says scientists are much more interested in 433 Eros, a larger rock that they feel has more to tell.

"We think we can learn more from the big guys than from the little ones," he said.

Scientists believe the asteroids may in fact hold the solutions to many mysteries, including the early composition of the solar system, and how the planets -- and, perhaps, life itself -- came to evolve.

"We don't know exactly what we'll find there," Dunham says, "but we hope to answer questions about the formation of the solar system, since asteroids are primordial remnants of the formation of the solar system."

Meanwhile, images from the fly-by are still coming in, and NASA said it plans to make a movie from the close encounter.


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