If you want the most revealing pictures of your subject, get in close. That's what controllers did with the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft early this morning--and they got an eyeful in return.
NEAR has orbited the 33-kilometer-long asteroid Eros since February at distances as short as 35 kilometers from the surface. But today, its camera cranking, the spacecraft swooped to just 6.4 kilometers above Eros--roughly the cruising altitude of a commuter airplane on Earth, notes mission director Robert Farquhar of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Nothing has ever gotten that close to a planetary body before without landing (or crashing).
The closeup view shows rocks as small as 1.4 meters in size awash in a sea of finer "soil" that has softened the outlines of small impact craters. NEAR team members will be looking at the boulders for clues to the nature of the buried bedrock and at the soil for signs of how the surface has been shaped. A far closer look is still to come: As a grand finale to its mission, NEAR Shoemaker is slated to make a "controlled descent" to the very surface of Eros next February.