Johns Hopkins in space The NEAR mission: APL-made craft makes historic, efficient rendezvous with asteroids.

November 27, 1997

A SPACECRAFT FLOATS somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. It is millions of miles from its destination and from its origin -- the southern Howard County lab where it was designed and built.

The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) is a 1,700-pound creation of scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The craft was launched in February 1996. Its three-year mission is to broaden man's knowledge about some intriguing celestial bodies. It may also reveal more clues to the origins of the universe.

All this is being done on a relatively small budget, in the tradition of the Pathfinder-Sojourner mission to Mars earlier this year. Applied Physics Laboratory scientists, working just south of Columbia, built a low-cost but effective vehicle for space exploration. They produced a spacecraft for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for $108 million, under budget and at a fraction of what NASA spends on some of its missions.

NEAR is succeeding, too. It has reached its first target, the asteroid Mathilde -- twice as black as coal, and 35 miles long, 33 miles wide and 31 miles thick. The spacecraft recorded hundreds of photographs of the asteroid as it blazed past at 22,000 miles per hour. Scientists are ecstatic about the pictures, which show the asteroid to be a cratered rock that is slightly more dense than ice.

Closer to home, the exhibit "Asteroids in the Atrium," featuring a scaled-down model of NEAR, is on display at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore. Through APL's link with the museum at the Inner Harbor, the public can unravel some mysteries of asteroids.

The spacecraft's destination is the asteroid Eros -- 120 million miles from Earth and small enough to fit inside Howard County. When NEAR gets within 15 miles of Eros sometime in 1999, it will become the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid.

In another first, the NEAR mission is controlled from APL. Never before has a NASA planetary venture been run from a non-NASA facility. Even before NEAR completes its objectives, APL has much to celebrate about this journey into space. With the Maryland Science Center exhibit, it can share the success with the rest of us.

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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