NASA successfully launched the NEAR spacecraft on Saturday, February 17th, at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Problems with the rocket-tracking system at the Cape Canaveral Air Station caused the launch to be slightly delayed.
NEAR, which stands for Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous, is now bound for Eros, one of the largest asteroids in orbit around the sun. If all goes as planned, NEAR will become the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid, reaching Eros in February 1999.
During the next two months, each of the five science instruments on board the spacecraft will be turned on and project scientists will be gearing up in order to be prepared for arrival at Eros. NEAR will orbit the potato-shaped asteroid for about a year, coming in as close as ten miles to its surface. The asteroid may contain materials that date back to the origin of the solar system, 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists hope data returned from NEAR will enable them to learn more about how Earth and other planets formed. This data may also assist scientists working on how to keep asteroids from crashing into Earth and help determine the feasibility of sending astronauts to an asteroid. NEAR's instruments will measure the mass, density, and composition of the asteroid.
NEAR is one of the cheapest deep-space probes ever flown in space, cashing in at $122 million. The NEAR mission is the first in a series of inexpensive spacecraft developed for exploring the solar system, falling in with NASA's attempts at faster, cheaper, and better designs.
"It's cool because it's a Discovery mission and it works," says Chris Lewicki, UofA Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Senior who is a NEAR-XGRS (X-ray Gamma-ray spectrometer) team member.
For more information about NEAR, check out our previous issue of The Ascending Node, cover story. Michael Koller did a comprehensive overview of the NEAR mission. You can also access information through electronic source. Some related URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) are listed on the last page.