After a 5-year, 2-billion-mile journey -- the last year spent in a close-orbit study of asteroid 433 Eros -- the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft has touched down the surface of the asteroid, the first time such a feat has ever been tried or accomplished. Eros is 196 million miles (316 million kilometers) from Earth.
"This was a bonus," says NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) Mission Director Dr. Robert Farquhar of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., which built the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA.
"The NEAR mission and the spacecraft were not designed to touch down on the asteroid, and such a maneuver has never been attempted before," Farquhar says. "But the risk was worth taking. During our yearlong study of Eros we collected 10 times more data than originally planned. And now, at the end of the mission, we had a chance to gather close-up images of Eros' surface – capturing features as small as 4 inches (10 centimeters) across – by executing a controlled descent to the surface of Eros. So we took it."
A successful engine burn at 10:31 a.m. (EST), nudged NEAR Shoemaker toward Eros from about 16 miles (26 kilometers) away. Then four breaking maneuvers brought the spacecraft to rest on asteroid's surface in an area just outside a saddle-shaped depression, Himeros, at approximately 3:05 p.m. (EST).
NEAR mission news, images and end-of-mission activities can be found at the NEAR Web site: http://near.jhuapl.edu/media/index.html.
Materials provided by Johns Hopkins University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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