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Archive for Monday, February 12, 2001

Unmanned spacecraft successfully lands on asteroid

February 12, 2001

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— The NEAR spacecraft touched down on the barren, rocky surface of Eros, successfully completing history's first landing on an asteroid.

NEAR's landing about 2:05 p.m. CST Monday 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 flawlessly performed five rocket firings, starting Monday 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 per 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.

Ed Weiler, NASA's chief scientist, 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.

No matter how Monday's landing attempt ended, Weiler said earlier, NEAR was "a total success. It returned 10 times more data than expected."

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