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NEAR Mission Scientists About To Get Historic Long, Close-Up Look Of Eros

News Services
University of Arizona

William V. Boynton, 520-621-6941
Samuel 'Hop' Bailey, 520-621-8637
Jazbir Bhangoo / Irina Mikheeva, 520-626-2712 / 520-621-2883

UA scientist is among the NEAR mission scientists about to get historic long, close-up look at an asteroid

On Sunday, Dec. 20, the NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) spacecraft will initiate a series of rocket engine firings that accelerate it toward a rendezvous with a faster-moving asteroid, 433 Eros. NEAR will reach Eros next month to begin the first close-up and comprehensive study of an asteroid in space history.

“This is the first time ever a spacecraft will orbit an asteroid,” said Professor William V. Boynton of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at The University of Arizona in Tucson. “There have been flybys and snapshots, but not much in the way of quantitative scientific data.”

Boynton is on one of six science teams that will study 433 Eros on the year- long NEAR mission that begins on Jan. 10 and is scheduled to end Feb. 6, 2000. The asteroid, which measures 24 miles in length and 10 miles in diameter (40 kilometers x 17 kilometers) was the first near-Earth asteroid (those whose orbits come close to or cross the orbit of Earth) spotted by astronomers.

Boynton is a scientist on the X-Ray/Gamma Ray Spectrometer, or XGRS, experiment. It is the primary experiment for determining the elemental composition of the surface and layers just beneath the surface. The instrument will begin taking data next spring while NEAR is orbiting above the asteroid’s surface, coming as close as 9 miles (15 kilometers).

The XGRS was designed and built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., which also built the NEAR spacecraft and manages the NEAR mission. Boynton and his group at the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory will process XGRS data and manage the data base for all XGRS data, as well as work on the scientific interpretation of results. Boynton’s UA colleagues on the NEAR mission include Samuel (Hop) Bailey, project manager, and software specialists Jazbir (Jesse) Bhangoo and Irina Mikheeva.

XGRS results are basic to solving such mysteries as the source of meteorites and their relationship to asteroids.

“Eros is a very important asteroid because it is a member of a class called ‘S’ asteroids, which appear to be similar to a rare type of meteorite on Earth called ‘stony-irons,’which have 50 percent metal and 50 percent silicate. Though the S-asteroids are very common in space, they do not seem to match many of the meteorites that fall to Earth,” Boynton said.

“The other half of this problem is that the most common meteorites found on Earth, called ordinary chondrites, are very common on Earth but appear to be rare in space. Some people think that ordinary chondrites might come from S-asteroids and that S-asteroids actually might have a lower metal content than ground-based astronomical data suggest. This mission should really answer this question.”

It’s possible that the composition of Eros might turn out to be different from any of the known meteorites, Boynton added. It’s also possible that Eros, a highly irregularly shaped object, is “possibly a chip off some larger, pre- existing asteroid that was smashed up,” richer in silicates on one side and richer in metal on another, Boynton said. “This might allow us to learn something about the processes that go on in asteroids.”

NEAR is the first in NASA’s Discovery Program for “faster, better, cheaper” planetary missions. It was launched Feb. 17, 1996, from Cape Canaveral, Fl., 9 months sooner than its 36-month schedule and $41.6 million under the $150 million budget. The other NEAR instruments include a multispectral imager, a laser rangefinder, a near-infrared spectrometer, a magnetometer and a radio science package.

NEAR is the first spacecraft powered by solar cells to operate beyond the orbit of Mars. It returned 500 images of asteroid 253 Mathilde when it flew within 750 miles of that object on June 27, 1997. Last January NEAR returned to the Earth’s vicinity for a “slingshot” gravity assist toward Eros’ orbital plane.

Next month, Boynton will travel from Cape Canaveral, site of the Jan. 3 launch of the Mars Polar Lander, to the Johns Hopkins lab to witness NEAR’s Jan. 10 arrival at Eros. On the Mars mission, Boynton heads an experiment in the Mars Volatiles and Climate Surveyor integrated payload. That experiment, TEGA, or the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, is to discover how much water and carbon dioxide is in soil at the south pole landing site on Mars, and what minerals make up that soil.

EDITORS NOTE: Press packets, an 11-minute broadcast-quality video, “NEAR - The Journey Continues” (Feb 1998) and a 10-minute broadcast-quality video, “NEAR Spacecraft’s Encounter with Asteroid 433 Eros” (Nov 1998) is available to news media from Helen Worth, media contact at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, phone 240-228-5113. Lori Stiles in UA News Services, phone 520-621-1877, has copies of the press packet and Beta-format videos. NASA will televise a news conference on the NEAR mission from NASA headquarters, Washington D.C., at 1 p.m. EST Wednesday, Dec. 16. NASA-TV will also carry live briefings on NEAR held at the Johns Hopkins University at noon EST, Sunday, Jan. 10, 1999, and at 1 p.m. EST Thursday, Jan. 14, 1999.

NOTE: A 25-page press kit issued by the Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University, is available as a PDF file (1.3 MB) at