Landing on an Asteroid
February 12, 2001 - Today was the first time a spacecraft successfully landed on an asteroid.
The NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) Shoemaker space probe was launched in February 1996 inside the smallest rocket ever used on a planetary mission. The primary objective was to orbit and study the near Earth asteroid, 433 Eros. Beyond the moon, this massive (21 miles long) peanut-shaped space rock is one of our closest neighbors.
The Shoemaker spacecraft is about the size of a car. It has four solar panels surrounding a high-gain antenna. With all its instruments, cameras and fuel, the craft weighed 1,775 pounds.
After almost two years in hibernation mode, Shoemaker performed a slingshot maneuver around the Earth that propelled it toward its rendezvous with Eros.
Four years after taking off from Florida, Shoemaker finally encountered the asteroid while 160,000,000 miles from Earth. It circled and studied Eros for a year, gathering important data on the object's orbit, geology and gravity.
Having almost depleted its fuel supply, and now closer to the sun than the Earth, the Shoemaker probe was gently guided to the surface of Eros. During the final 3 miles of its decent, Shoemaker captured 69 incredibly detailed photographs of craters and rocks on the asteroid's surface.
Even though the craft wasn't designed to land on the surface, it survived touchdown. A gamma ray spectrometer was then able to gather more data on the composition of Eros.
A few weeks later, after over 5 years and traveling 4.3 billion miles around the sun, Shoemaker sent its last report to Earth.