Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

NEAR gets close up look at asteroid Eros
Posted: Feb. 17, 2000

  Eros in color
This color image of Eros was acquired by NEAR's multispectral imager on February 12, 2000, at a range of 1100 miles (1800 km). It is part of the final approach imaging sequence prior to orbit insertion and is intended to map the color properties of Eros across all of the illuminated surface. The image shows approximately the color that Eros would appear to the unaided human eye. Its subtle butterscotch hue is typical of a wide variety of minerals thought to be the major components of asteroids like Eros. Photo: JHU/APL.
Only a few days into the first close-up study of an asteroid, data from NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission indicate that 433 Eros is no ordinary space rock.

Since the NEAR spacecraft met up with and began its historic orbit of Eros on Feb. 14, NEAR team members at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD, which manages the mission for NASA, have pored over images and other early scientific returns. It will take months to unravel the deeper mysteries of Eros, but data from NEAR's final approach and first days of orbit offer tantalizing glimpses of an ancient surface covered with craters, grooves, layers, house-sized boulders and other complex features.

"Work is just starting, but it's already clear that Eros is much more exciting and geologically diverse than we had expected," says Dr. Andrew Cheng, of the Applied Physics Laboratory, who serves as the NEAR mission's lead scientist.

Scientists now know that Eros' mass is 2.4 grams per cubic centimeter -- about the bulk density of Earth's crust and a near match of the estimates derived from NEAR's flyby of Eros in December 1998.

This incredible picture of Eros, taken on February 14, 2000, shows the view looking from one end of the asteroid across the gouge on its underside and toward the opposite end. In this mosaic, constructed from two images taken after the NEAR spacecraft was inserted into orbit, features as small as 120 feet (35 m) across can be seen. House-sized boulders are present in several places; one lies on the edge of the giant crater separating the two ends of the asteroid. A bright patch is visible on the asteroid in the top left-hand part of this image, and shallow troughs can be see just below this patch. Photo: JHU/APL.
"With this new data, it now looks like we have a fairly solid object," says radio science team leader Dr. Donald Yeomans of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. "There is no strong evidence that it's a rubble pile like Mathilde," the large asteroid NEAR passed and photographed in 1997.

Even without in-depth analysis, pictures snapped with NEAR's Multispectral Imager offer several clues about Eros' age and geography. The large number and concentration of craters points to an older asteroid, uniform grooves across its craters and ridges hint at a global fabric and, perhaps, underground layers. In addition to numerous boulders, the digital camera has also captured brighter spots on the surface that NEAR scientists are anxious to study.

NEAR's Near-Infrared Spectrometer has picked up variations in the asteroid's mineral composition, possibly the proportions of pyroxene and olivine, iron-bearing minerals commonly found in meteorites.

A low-phase flyby during last weekend's final approach put NEAR directly between the sun and Eros, allowing the instrument to gather unique data on the asteroid's mineral makeup under optimal lighting. Combined with multispectral images, this information will help form the first mineral map ever made of an asteroid.

  Eros saddle
This picture was taken from NEAR on February 15, 2000, while the spacecraft was passing directly over the large gouge that creates Eros's characteristic peanut shape. It is a mosaic of individual images showing features as small as 120 feet (35 meters) across. Although most of the asteroid is in shadow, we are able to see inside the gouge. Many narrow parallel troughs closely follow the shape of the gouge. Although they appear curvilinear from this view, they are most likely oriented parallel to the length of the asteroid. The strong lighting contrast along the terminator (the line separating day from night on Eros) makes it easy to see that most of the surface is saturated with impact craters. Inside the gouge, however, only smaller craters are present, indicating that the area within the gouge is younger than the surface along the terminator. This implies that the event that caused the gouge must have happened more recently than the formation of the rest of the surface of Eros. Photo: JHU/APL.
"We want to correlate the changes in color with the geologic features," says Dr. Scott Murchie, a science team member from the Applied Physics Laboratory. "If we see a crater, for example, is it different on the outside than on the inside? Is the face of a cliff different than the ridge? This data will eventually tell us about the asteroid's history."

For the next year, NEAR's instruments will continue to examine the potato-shaped asteroid's chemistry, geology, and evolutionary history. The mission also includes a radio science experiment to more precisely calculate Eros' density and mass distribution -- clues critical to determining the asteroid's gravity and refining NEAR's orbit.

NEAR's scientific capabilities expand soon, when its X- ray/Gamma-Ray Spectrometer and Laser Rangefinder are turned on within the next two weeks. The spectrometer will measure important chemical elements such as silicon, magnesium, iron, uranium, thorium and potassium; the laser scans will determine Eros' precise shape.

Mission Status Center
For a detailed account of NEAR's orbit insertion see Spaceflight Now's Mission Status Center.

Video vault
Animation shows the NEAR spacecraft encountering 433 Eros and firing its thrusters to begin orbiting the asteroid.
  PLAY (168k, 28sec QuickTime file)
The infrared spectrometer aboard NEAR will be used to determine the asteroid's mineral composition as seen in animation.
  PLAY (228k, 37sec QuickTime file)
Dr. Andrew Cheng, NEAR's project scientist, explains what experiments the spacecraft will conduct once it arrives at Eros.
  PLAY (311k, 44sec QuickTime file)
Dr. Naom Izenberg, NEAR's instrument scientist, describes how the spacecraft will explore the early history of our solar system.
  PLAY (267k, 30sec QuickTime file)

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