| Feb. 12, 2001 — Defying overwhelming odds,
the NEAR spacecraft survived a touchdown on the surface of the
asteroid Eros, delighting scientists with unprecedented close-up
pictures during the hour-long descent.
Spacecraft operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied
Physics Laboratory declared victory at 3:07 p.m. ET when telemetry
data from the NEAR probe confirmed it had struck the surface of
Eros, a 21-mile long asteroid currently about 196 million miles from
The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous spacecraft has been in orbit
around Eros since Feb. 14, 2000.
NEAR was never designed to be a lander, but with fuel running
low and operating funds at an end, scientists decided to try to
bring NEAR as close as possible to the asteroid's surface in an
attempt to wrest some highly detailed images from the probe's
At worst, NEAR would run short of fuel and crash to the
surface before relaying an pictures. What happened was the best:
NEAR transmitted clear views of Eros' rocky surface until landing
interrupted its radio link to Earth.
Spacecraft operators, however, were able to detect a
low-signal beacon, indicating NEAR had survived its close encounter
"The pictures have just been absolutely
spectacular," mission director Robert Farquhar said from the
control room in a video broadcast distributed by several Web sites
on the Internet, including Discovery.com.
Scientists are puzzled by many surface features on Eros, such
as the lack of fresh craters and the apparent disintegration of many
of its rocks. Asteroids like Eros date back to the birth of the
solar system and may hold clues as to how the universe formed.