COLUMBIA, Md. (AP) The NEAR spacecraft touched down on the barren, rocky surface of Eros, successfully completing history”s first landing on an asteroid.

Paul Wong
The NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft landed inside the above circle yesterday on the asteroid 433 Eros, marking the first unmanned touchdown on an asteroid.<br><br>AP PHOTO

NEAR”s landing at about 3:05 p.m. EST yesterday was confirmed when Mission Control received a beacon signal from the craft resting on the surface of Eros, some 196 million miles from Earth.

“I am happy to report that the NEAR has touched down,” said Robert Farquhar, mission director. “We are still getting signals. It is still transmitting from the surface.”

Engineers watching from monitors from Mission Control broke into applause at confirmation of history”s first landing of a manmade object on an asteroid. The mission, controlled by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, also was the first into deep space operated by a non-NASA center.

NEAR flawless performed five rocket firings, starting yesterday morning, to drop it out of a 15-mile orbit of Eros and slow it toward the surface. Early indications are that Mission control completed its plan to guide NEAR to a feather-like touchdown by slowing its velocity, relative to the surface of the asteroid, to about the speed of a fast walk, 3 to 5 miles an hour.

The landing completes a five-year, 2-billion-mile mission for the robot craft and boosts the technical experience in putting spacecraft on objects with extremely light gravity.

“This gives us a lot of practice,” said Ed Weiler, NASA”s chief scientist. “We”ll eventually want to land on comets because they hold the clues to beginnings.”

Weiler said the experience gained in the NEAR landing attempt on Eros can be applied in about a decade when NASA may launch a landing mission to a comet.

NEAR became the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid when it arrived at Eros, an object named for the Greek god of love, on Valentine”s Day last year. The mission had been scheduled to end tomorrow, the anniversary of achieving orbit.

Farquhar said it was decided to attempt the landing to squeeze a final bit of science out of the $223 million mission.

No matter how the landing attempt ended, Weiler said, earlier, NEAR was “a total success. It returned 10 times more data than expected.”

Officials targeted NEAR to land on Eros at the edge of a deep depression called Himeros. Scientists picked this spot because it is thought to be on the edge of two different geologic formations.

During the final hours of its descent, NEAR furiously took pictures of Eros” surface as it drew closer and closer. Scientists hoped the final shots before impact would clearly show rocks as small as a fist, an unprecedented close-up view of an asteroid.

“In those final images, we”ll be seeing objects that are just a few inches in resolution,” said Andrew Cheng, chief project scientist of NEAR.

Farquhar had warned in advance that landing NEAR on Eros is exquisitely “tricky.”

NEAR was not designed to land anywhere. Shaped like tin can attached to four solar panels, the craft was not equipped with wheels or braces to absorb the landing force.

Weiler commented, “This is not a landing. It is a controlled crash.”

Eros has very light gravity, about one-thousandth that of Earth, which means that an object such as NEAR, weighing 1,100 pounds on Earth, would weigh only slightly over a pound in the gravity field of Eros. A quarter, dropped from head-high on Eros, would take five seconds to fall to the surface.

Weiler said the final descent of NEAR was actually slower than the asteroid”s rotation and there was risk that the spinning space rock could actually swat the craft back into orbit.

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