5 June 1998

So NEAR And Yet So Far

That the most distant man-made object ever to be detected by optical means should be called NEAR is yet another of science's little ironies. Whizzing towards asteroid 433 Eros at 48 thousand kilometres per hour, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous spacecraft, launched in February 1996, found its way into the record books recently when Gordon Garradd of Loomberah, Australia, caught a glimpse of its solar panels through his telescope.

The sighting broke a previous record for long-distance detection of hardware stamped "Made On Earth" - that of the Galileo spacecraft back in December 1992, imaged by the University of Arizona's 180 centimetre Spacewatch telescope at a distance of
8 060 000 kilometres. In contrast, NEAR was seen at a staggering 33 650 000 kilometres from the Earth.

NEAR will surely go down in interplanetary history as the humble craft that kept setting the trends. The first of NASA's Discovery Programme of low-cost, small-scale planetary missions, it has already secured the title of Most Daring Spaceship Ever To Approach An Asteroid. The accolade refers to a close encounter in July last year, when it came within 1200 kilometres of asteroid 253 Mathilde.

Add to that the glory of being the first spacecraft powered by solar cells to operate beyond Mars, and you have a pretty impressive CV. Yet NEAR's greatest claim to fame will come on 10 January 1999, when it becomes the first space contraption ever to orbit an asteroid, studying the composition and characteristics of 433 Eros from a range of just 15 kilometres.

"It's the last leg of NEAR's interplanetary journey, and work is nearly complete on the complex plans for the Eros rendezvous and early orbital phase operations," says David Dunham of the Johns Hopkins University Applied physics Laboratory, which is managing the mission. "Excitement is building..."

GoGo Further - NEAR Mission