NASA officials have told controllers of the NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft to send their charge on a suicidal plunge to the surface of asteroid Eros. Running short on fuel and money, the $125 million craft will execute a "controlled descent" to the surface on 12 February after spending a year orbiting Eros. In return for obtaining the most detailed pictures ever of a celestial body other than Earth's moon (see the 22 September issue of Science, pp. 2085-2104, for the latest from Eros), mission scientists will follow the lead of Lunar Prospector, which was intentionally crashed into the moon last year in a search for water deposits.
Never designed to touch down anywhere, NEAR-Shoemaker will be pulled to a final embrace with the 34-kilometer-long asteroid just before Valentine's Day, hitting the surface at the speed of a brisk walk. Controllers will listen for a day or two for any word of how the "landing" went, but "there is nothing planned after that," says mission scientist Andrew Cheng of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where the spacecraft was built and is now controlled.