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February 17, 1996
For Immediate Release

Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Spacecraft Successfully Launched

The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft -- the first asteroid orbiter of the Space Age -- was successfully launched today at 3:43 p.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida aboard a Delta II Rocket.

Designed and build at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL), the 805-kg (1,775-pound) spacecraft lifted off on the second day of its 16-day launch window. All spacecraft systems are operating nominally as reported by the Mission Operations Center on the JHU/APL campus in Laurel, MD. NEAR is the first mission in NASA'S Discovery Program for "faster, better, cheaper" planetary exploration.

"This is a terrific beginning for the Discovery Program," said Dr. Stamatios M. Krimigis, head of the JHU/APL Space Department. "We have created a new paradigm for planetary missions: that one can design to cost, without increasing risk, and still maximize science capability, all in record time."

Discovery Program guidelines put a cost ceiling of $150 million (FY92 dollars) on spacecraft development to launch plus 30 days, with a maximum three-year development cycle. NEAR was developed in just 26 months for less than $112 million (FY92 dollars). JHU/APL -- the first non-NASA space center to conduct a NASA planetary mission -- is managing the mission for NASA's Office of Space Science.

NEAR will "rendezvous" in early 1999 with the asteroid 433 Eros. The 40 km (25 mile) long Eros is the first-discovered (1898) and second largest of the near-Earth, or Earth-approaching, asteroids, many of whose orbits cross Earth's path. Unlike the millions of Main Belt asteroids which orbit the sun in a vast ring between Mars and Jupiter, the Earth approachers are thought to be dead comets or fragments jarred from the Main Belt by asteroid collisions. About 250 near-Earth asteroids are known, and scientists estimate there are at least 1,000 with diameters of 1 km (0.6 mile) or more.

During its year-long mission in orbit around Eros, NEAR will conduct the first long-term, close-up look at an asteroid's surface composition and physical properties. Asteroids are thought to include debris left over from the earliest days of planetary formation 4.6 billion years ago. NEAR may provide clues to long-standing scientific mysteries such as the nature of planetesimals, the origin of meteorites, and the relationship between asteroids, meteorites, and comets.

As a bonus during its 35-month journey to Eros, NEAR will pass within 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) of the large Main Belt asteroid 253 Mathilde in June 1997. In addition, the spacecraft returns to the Earth vicinity for a "slingshot" gravity assist in January 1998, a maneuver that bends the NEAR trajectory nearly 11 degrees out of the ecliptic to match Eros' orbital plane.

The NEAR spacecraft is designed to emphasize simplicity, reliability, and lower cost, with redundant critical subsystems, fixed instruments, and a fixed 1.5 meter (5 feet) high-gain antenna. Four solar panels producing 1,800 watts at 1 AU are the only deployable system on the spacecraft. NEAR will be the first spacecraft powered by solar cells to operate beyond the orbit of Mars.

NEAR's instrument package includes an X-ray/gamma ray spectrometer, near-infrared spectrograph, laser rangefinder, magnetometer, radio science experiment, and a multi-spectral imager fitted with a CCD imaging detector capable of photographing details on Eros' surface as small as 1 meter (3 feet). Several of the instruments are derived from designs developed by JHU/APL for Department of Defense spacecraft, an example dual-use technology transferred to the civilian sector.

The NEAR team at JHU/APL includes Thomas Coughlin; Robert W. Farquhar, Mission Manager; Andrew F. Cheng, Project Scientist; Andrew G. Santo, Spacecraft Systems Engineer; and Robert E. Gold, Payload Manager. At NASA Headquarters, NEAR Program Manager is Elizabeth E. Beyer. NEAR Program Scientist is John Kerridge. Wesley T. Huntress is NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science.

NEAR Science Team Group Leaders are: Joseph Veverka, Cornell University, Multispectral Imager/Near Infrared Spectrograph; Jacob I. Trombka, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, X-Ray/Gamma-Ray Spectrometer; Mario H. Acuna, NASA/GSFC, Magnetometer; Maria T. Zuber, MIT and NASA/GSFC, Laser Rangefinder; and Donald K. Yeomans, NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Radio Science.

Navigation support for the mission is provided by the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Major spacecraft subsystems were provided by companies including Gencorp Aerospace, Spectrolab Inc., Motorola Inc., Delco Electronics Corp., Honeywell Inc., Eagle-Picher Industries, Hughes Aircraft Co., Ithaco Inc., SEAKR, and Ball Corp. The Delta II launch vehicle was produced and managed by McDonnell Douglas Aerospace.

For more information, contact APL Public Information Officer Helen Worth; phone: 240-228-5113 or 410-778-5113.

Mission updates can be obtained on the NEAR homepage at http://sd-www.jhuapl.edu/NEAR/or by calling 240-228-8659. Photographs of the NEAR spacecraft, launch, and artist's concepts of the rendezvous at Eros are available upon request. Also available are a seven-minute video animation of the NEAR mission and B-roll footage of spacecraft development and testing.