The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft flew by theEarth Friday, Jan. 23, "right on schedule and right on target," says ajubilant Thomas Coughlin, Space Programs Manager at The Johns HopkinsUniversity Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which manages the NEARmission. All spacecraft subsystems worked flawlessly as NEAR swoopedaround the Earth during a 2-hour visit for a gravity assist that put itonto the correct trajectory for a Jan. 10, 1999, encounter with asteroid433 Eros.
The Jan. 22-23 swingby put the United States on watch for itsfirst naked-eye glimpse of an interplanetary spacecraft. The southernstates from east to west, and especially Hawaii, got the best viewbecause of clear skies and darkness that made it easier to see sunglintsoff the spacecraft's four solar panels. Although closest-encounter datais still being processed, early indications are that NEAR passed within336 miles of southwest Iran, as predicted. (Encounter data will beposted on the NEAR Web page as soon as it is available.)
The first sighting of NEAR was made at about 1:30 p.m. EST, byan astronomer in Caussols, France, using a 0.9 meter telescope, as thespacecraft approached far above the Middle East. When sighted, NEAR was580,000 miles from Earth and within a half-mile of its expectedlocation.
Data captured by NEAR instruments started coming in to theAPL Mission Operations Center in Laurel, Md., on Friday evening, says MarkHoldridge, Mission Operations Director. Scientists released the first imagesfrom the swingby on Monday, Jan. 26. [See the NEAR web page athttp://sd-www.jhuapl.edu/NEAR/].
NEAR took a series of images of Asia, Africa andAntarctica as it pulled away from Earth. The images will be combined tomake a "movie" documenting the spacecraft's visit. For the next weekNEAR's Multi-Spectral Imager and its Near-Infrared Spectrograph will becalibrated using proven measurements of Earth and moon geologicalfeatures. On Feb. 6, the last of the instruments will be turned off.Over the next year, as NEAR closes in on Eros, scientists and engineerswill be developing and testing flight and ground software for thespacecraft and finalizing procedures for the yearlong encounter with theasteroid.
NEAR's study of Eros will be the first in-depth examination of anear-Earth asteroid and is expected to yield information that will helpscientists better understand the evolution of our solar system. NEAR,which is being tracked by NASA's Deep Space Network, is the firstmission in the Space Agency's Discovery series.
Materials provided by Johns Hopkins University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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