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NEAR Spacecraft About to Land on Eros

Aired February 12, 2001 - 2:56 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: The NEAR spacecraft should be about to land on an asteroid in outer space in any moment now. Let's check in with CNN's Miles O'Brien, who's following the story to see the latest and hear the latest.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, the closer we go to the asteroid Eros, the Shoemaker-NEAR spacecraft is making its way down and we're getting closer and closer images of an asteroid, unprecedented images. Look at this live picture. And when I say live, you have to understand this left this surface -- or the spacecraft, I should say, 17 1/2 minutes ago. That will give you an idea of how far away it is. About 200 million miles, 17 1/2-minute lag for the speed of light to send that signal to us to give us that live image.

I've got a pair of scientists here as bookends, Peter Thomas, Clark Chapman. They've been with this program since the beginning and there you see the mission operations center here in Laurel, Maryland at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Peter, what are we seeing so far? Walk us through some of these images. What's interesting to you?

PETER THOMAS, NEAR SCIENTIST: Well, we've been seeing boulders from a few kilometers height, almost no craters and now we're very much closer and can see that the boulders are sort of changing shape, possibly indicating the fine detail of what's really right right on the surface of this asteroid.

And we can even see little details and the probable layers inside some of these boulders. So, it almost getting to be sort of outcrop geology that the geologists like to do. You hit it with a hammer, but, of course, we've only got the spacecraft to hit it with.

O'BRIEN: Exactly. I bet you'd like to be there with that hammer. Let's take a look at some animation for a moment and explain what's going on to remind our viewers exactly what's going on. It's an 1,100-pound spacecraft. It's been in orbit with this asteroid for a year now, and it's taken about 160,000 images. A successful mission by anybody's imagination or judgment of it.

The decision was at the end of the mission what to do with it, and here was the idea: Send it down to the surface. They're not calling it a landing because it doesn't have any legs. It wasn't designed to be a lander. But in essence, it is coming down at about the speed of the lunar lander in the days of Apollo.

With me now to elaborate on the point just a little is Clark Chapman. And Clark, we were talking about that. The gravity on this asteroid is one-one-thousandth of the gravity here, so that's a very gentle landing. What are the chances it will survive?

CLARK CHAPMAN, NEAR SCIENTIST: Well, I'm not an engineer, but the spacecraft was not designed to land, so it doesn't have any feet or legs on it the way the probes that went to Mars or the vehicles that landed men on the Moon had. So, it'll get dented and damaged in some sense. But, we're hoping the radio might still broadcast signals.

O'BRIEN: Wouldn't that be interesting, if we saw that? Now, whether there's any science coming would another entirely.

CHAPMAN: The science is from these beautiful pictures.

O'BRIEN: Yes. All right, let's take a look at some of these picture as they come down and as they get closer, what more are can you learn? You can make out more detail, obviously. But as, you know, you're limited in the sense that you're not there. You can't break it open. What can you tell from looking at it? And especially, you're looking at these craters, I know.

CHAPMAN: Well, I don't see any craters. I see rocks and boulders and more and more of them. And if you are a person walking around in this area, which is now probably smaller than a football field across, you would have a hard time walking around and it'd be a very bumpy surface and there's a lot of rocks and the real question is is there soil there as well or it that really just almost all rock? And it will -- if it were all rock, it might be part of the original planet from which Eros was blasted off in the Asteroid Belt.

O'BRIEN: Peter Thomas, if you were on that surface right now and if you jumped, gave yourself a good jump, would you put yourself in orbit?

THOMAS: Probably not into orbit, but you would jump an awful lot higher than on Earth. In fact, real walking there is a problem just because the slightest push that you give will give you a nice high leap instead of a forward step.

O'BRIEN: Now, let's take a look the mission operation center, here, and just give us a brief sense of what's going on in here now as they gather these images. Obviously, a very gratifying moment, but is this an opportunity just to enjoy things or is there a lot of worry right now as they watch things go down?

THOMAS: Well, at this point, it's mostly just making sure, just seeing what is going on because there's no way to change the commands on the spacecraft. It's enjoying it. It used to going pretty much on the designed trajectory, seeing all the wild news things and the images as well as just tracking how high it is and it's about three minutes to touchdown. O'BRIEN: What's through your mind at this point, Clark? You've been a part of this program for so long. This is -- it's kind of bittersweet, isn't it? It is the end of the line.

CHAPMAN: I guess so. But this spacecraft has done what it was supposed to do, and unlike some NASA missions that seem to dribble on forever and forever, this has a well-defined end that we're seeing here in the next minutes, and it's gotten pictures of every square foot on the surface of Eros. So, we've got a wealth of data analyzed. So, I'm pretty happy about it all.

O'BRIEN: So, don't mourn for the NEAR-Shoemaker. The NEAR- Shoemaker has served us well. Well, we've enjoyed the pictures. We'll still be watching them and we'll get back to you a little bit later as we hear about what happens after the impact. Don't call it the landing. Don't call it a crash, just impact for now. We'll let you know later.

Miles O'Brien, CNN live from Laurel, Maryland.



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