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Monday, January 4, 1999 Published at 12:42 GMT


Boost for Near spacecraft

Near is travelling at 19 kilometres per second

The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (Near) spacecraft has successfully fired its rockets for 24 minutes. When the same manoeuvre was attempted last month Near lost contact with Earth for over 24 hours.

Near is intended to be the first probe to orbit an asteroid and was only weeks from its target, Eros, when the problems struck. The successful rocket burn will lift mission controllers' hopes that the spacecraft will meet up with the asteroid early in 2000.

The rocket burn took place late on Sunday and increased the spaceprobe's speed by over 2000 mph (3200 kph), to around 43,000 mph or 19 kilometres every second.

Accelerate to intercept

[ image: Eros is only the third asteroid to be imaged from close-up]
Eros is only the third asteroid to be imaged from close-up
The greater speed is required if Near is to catch up and intercept the faster moving asteroid. Eros flew past Near on 23 December enabling some images to be captured and beamed back to Earth.

Once the accuracy data from the burn has been analysed, another burn will be planned to correct any minor drift out of position that may have occurred. This will be done using the smaller solid-fuel rockets some time in the next fortnight.

The rockets will also be fired when guiding Near into orbit around Eros, a 25 mile (40 km) long asteroid, 240 million miles (385 million km) from Earth.

[ image: Near blasted off on 17 February 1996]
Near blasted off on 17 February 1996
The Near probe is intended to orbit nine miles (15 km) above Eros for a year, mapping its magnetic and gravitational fields and analysing its rock composition. Scientists had hoped to bring the craft to within feet of the surface and possibly even attempt a soft landing.

The mission has cost $211 million and by its end in 2000 scientists hope to have gained insight into the Earth's origin and the formation of the solar system.

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