February 14, 2001

Cornell Researchers Help Land Spacecraft on Eros

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Cornell researchers under the guidance of Prof. Joseph Veverka, astronomy, joined the ranks of Neil Armstrong and other NASA greats as part of a team made up of Johns Hopkins University researchers and NASA to orbit and collect close-up images of the asteroid Eros. The team exceeded expectations on Monday when they successfully landed the Near Earth Asteroid Rendevous (NEAR) spacecraft onto the asteroid and were able to maintain communication with it.

“There was just a one percent chance that we would hear from the spacecraft, it’s just amazing that it’s speaking back to us,” said Maureen Bell, NEAR researcher specialized in communicating and maneuvering NEAR.

Initially, the project was intended to collect images and data from a close orbiting perspective, not an actual landing. However, the researchers decided to try to land the spacecraft and maintain contact to see if they could, according to Maureen Bell.

Cornell researchers were focused on collecting and analyzing the images involved with the mission, as well as with writing the program to communicate with NEAR and to control its imaging.

“CU researchers wrote the command sequences to take pictures of Eros during the landing, and participated in the real-time analysis of the images for today’s media events,” said Prof. James Bell, astronomy.

The images are the most comprehensive yet taken of an asteroid. However, the NEAR had no specific instruction after landing since today is the last day of the mission, mostly because funding is exhausted, according to Maureen Bell.

“Basically it will run out of power soon and then become a space artifact. It was designed as an orbiter, not a lander after all,” James Bell said.

The images are being analyzed by another set of Cornell researchers including geologists, radiophysicists, and other astronomers.

“I think the most exciting results are having to with the nature of the surface soil. Asteroids may in general have soils that are in motion and subject to the forces of gravity. They appear to be sometimes so mobile that I suspect seismic motion,” said Cornell researcher Beth Ellen Clark. According to Clark, these properties of internal motion were not thought to be observable from our perspective.

However, NEAR has been able to obtain some images of the internal workings of the asteroid.

“We see very subdued crater morphology, nothing really fresh exists on Eros.

These downslope avalanches have exposed fresh material underneath have exposed fresh properties, these exposures reveal something about the properties of the interior more than the surface does,” said Clark.

Teams of researchers including professors, graduate students, independent researchers, and undergraduates have dedicated themselves to the NEAR project for about eight years. The teams communicated with joint researchers in Johns Hopkins University and NASA to coordinate the mission.

“The reason that all of this has been so successful is because we all communicated with each other so well,” said Maureen Bell.

According to Bell, coordinating with the spacecraft was the most challenging aspect for Cornell researchers since the scientists had to provide for the fact that the spacecraft was receiving the commands sent 20 minutes after they had been processed, and sending it’s own responses in another 20 minutes.

All the researchers were amazed at the smoothness of the landing and the conclusion of the mission.

“The spacecraft descended and took images and other data exactly as planned. In fact, it has exceeded our expectations by continuing to operate after landing. But instead, it just keeps going, and going, and going, …” said James Bell.

The project may open doors for more University-run missions, especially considering the success of NEAR.

“Now Cornell is definitely a major player in asteroid science and surface properties. Understanding how asteroid surfaces can tell us more information about the asteroid meteorite connection. Because the imaging and spectroscopy teams are based at Cornell I think Cornell will be seen as the center of that kind of data for NEAR,” Clark said.

“The project has demonstrated that big NASA missions can be effectively operated by small University-based research groups, working in collaboration with other universities and government labs,” said James Bell.

The fate of the NEAR will truly be a case of lost in space, because the spacecraft has little fuel to repel from Eros, it will be left there.

“I have this daydream that someday the spacecraft will be a tourist attraction for interplanetary vacationers. It will sit there pretty much intact for millions of years,” said James Bell.

Archived article by Leonor Guariguata