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14 March 2000
For Immediate Release

NEAR Spacecraft Renamed for Planetary Science Pioneer


The NASA satellite conducting the first close-up study of an asteroid has been renamed to honor Dr. Eugene M. Shoemaker, the legendary geologist who influenced decades of research on the role of asteroids and comets in shaping the planets. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft, currently orbiting asteroid 433 Eros more than 145 million miles from Earth, will now be known as NEAR Shoemaker.

"Gene Shoemaker was an inspirational, charismatic pioneer in the field of interplanetary science," said Dr. Carl B. Pilcher, NASA Science Director for Solar System Exploration, who announced the renaming today during the 31st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston. "It is a fitting tribute that we place his name on the spacecraft whose mission will expand on all he taught us about asteroids, comets and the origins of our solar system. "

Shoemaker died in a 1997 car accident, while on an annual study of asteroid impact craters in the Australian outback. With his wife and research partner, Carolyn, Shoemaker was part of the leading comet discovery team of the past century, perhaps most famous for finding the comet (Shoemaker-Levy 9) that broke up and collided with Jupiter in 1994.

He was an expert on craters and the impacts that caused them. Shoemaker's work on the nature and origin of Meteor Crater in Arizona in the 1960s laid the foundation for research on craters throughout the solar system. He also established the lunar geological time scale that allowed researchers to date the features on the moon's surface.

Though he never realized his dream of tapping a rock hammer on the moon, Shoemaker taught the Apollo astronauts about craters and lunar geology before they left Earth. Last year, when NASA's Lunar Prospector spacecraft crashed on the moon in an experiment at the end of its mission, a small vial of Shoemaker's ashes carried aboard the spacecraft was scattered on the moon's surface.

Shoemaker was a key member of the 1985 working group that first studied the NEAR mission, defining its science objectives and designing a conceptual payload. Many of the group's recommended instruments were included in the actual spacecraft, which only a month into its yearlong orbit of Eros is already returning fascinating data on the asteroid's surface and geology.

The first in NASA's Discovery Program of low-cost planetary missions, NEAR launched from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Fla., on Feb. 17. 1996. After a four-year journey that included flybys of asteroid Mathilde (June 1997), Earth (January 1998) and Eros (December 1998), NEAR began orbiting Eros on Feb. 14, 2000. The car-sized spacecraft will observe the asteroid from various distances - coming within several miles of the surface - before the mission ends in February 2001. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., designed and built the NEAR spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA.

For images and information on the NEAR mission, visit the NEAR Web site: http://near.jhuapl.edu


Media contacts:
JHU Applied Physics Laboratory:
Michael Buckley
Laurel, MD 20723
Phone: 240-228-7536
        NASA Headquarters:
Don Savage
Washington, DC
Phone: 202-358-1547
E-mail: dsavage@hq.nasa.gov