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15 January 1998
For Immediate Release

Earth Swingby Puts NEAR Spacecraft on Final Approach to Eros

Link to the NEAR Home Page

NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft, built by The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., will become the first interplanetary spacecraft to be seen with the naked eye when it swings by Earth Jan. 22-23. The spacecraft's solar panels will reflect the sun's rays onto the Earth in a greeting as it flies by for an adjustment of its trajectory to correctly align the spacecraft for a rendezvous with asteroid 433 Eros, its mission target.

Launched Feb. 17, 1996, NEAR completed a flyby of the asteroid Mathilde in June 1997 and is now on its way back to Earth. Late Thursday, Jan. 22, the spacecraft approaches Earth over the Pacific Ocean traveling at about 20,000 mph. Because the United States will be in darkness as NEAR approaches, if there is no cloud cover, several geographic areas will be able to see the sun reflecting off the spacecraft's solar panels, which will act as large mirrors. These sunglints will be visible on the East Coast, Friday, Jan. 23, at about 1:30 a.m. EST and the West Coast at about 1:45 a.m. EST (Thursday, 10:45 p.m. PST). (See below for more details.)

The spacecraft then swings around the Aleutian Islands and over Siberia before reaching its closest point to Earth, about 336 miles above Ahvaz in southwest Iran, Friday, Jan. 23, at 11:23 a.m., local time (2:23 a.m. EST), traveling at about 29,000 mph-its fastest speed for the swingby. Although NEAR will be close to Earth at this time, daylight may obscure its image. The spacecraft then swings over Africa and on to Antarctica before pulling away from the Earth at a speed of about 15,000 mph. The swingby will have changed NEAR's trajectory to approximately 11 degrees south of the Earth's ecliptic plane, the orbital path the Earth takes as it circles the sun, and put the spacecraft on target for its Jan. 10, 1999, rendezvous with Eros.

NEAR scientists and engineers are using the swingby as an opportunity to test performance and calibration of the spacecraft's six instruments and to practice coordinated multi-instrument observations of the type that will be used at Eros. The spacecraft's Laser Rangefinder will be used to conduct a two-way laser link with the Goddard Geophysical and Astrophysical Observatory, operated by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Weather permitting, the laser test will take place between Jan. 15-19. If successful, this will be the first-ever two-way (ground to space and back again) laser link to an interplanetary spacecraft.

The Multispectral Imager, a visible light camera that will help determine the physical characteristics of Eros, and the NEAR-Infrared Spectrograph, used to study surface minerals, will be calibrated by comparing their readings of geological features with proven measurements of the same areas. These instruments will also be used to take images of the Earth along the spacecraft's path. The images will be combined to produce a movie from a series of images taken over Asia, Africa, and Antarctica, which will be released several weeks after the swingby. NEAR's Magnetometer will be calibrated by comparing swingby data with known measurements of the Earth's magnetic field.

Other activities during the swingby will include using the X-Ray/Gamma-Ray Spectrometer to observe celestial gamma ray bursts and to collect data on gamma ray and x-ray backgrounds. These data are needed so scientists can better remove background impurities from the measurements to be made at Eros.

NEAR is expected to capture its first images of Eros, a 25-mile-long near-Earth asteroid, a few months prior to the 100th anniversary of the asteroid's discovery on Aug. 13, 1898. After reaching Eros a year from now the spacecraft will start its orbit about 600 miles above the asteroid's surface, descending to 200 miles by February and coming as close as 10 miles during its yearlong study. Scientists will thoroughly map Eros and will examine its surface composition and physical properties. On Feb. 6, 2000, the mission is expected to end with a controlled descent onto the asteroid, sending dozens of high-resolution pictures as it closes in on Eros.

The NEAR mission will be the first close-up study of an asteroid. APL, the first non-NASA center to conduct a NASA planetary mission, is managing the mission for NASA's Office of Space Science.

Areas Most Likely to See NEAR's Sunglint:

Region - (Friday Jan. 23) Sunglint Time Region - (Thursday Jan. 22) Sunglint Time
s. New England, e. New York* 1:25 am EST Colorado* 11:27 pm MST
Midwest (s. Ontario, Detroit area) 1:26 am EST s. New Mexico, s. Arizona 11:39 pm MST
Midwest (Chicago & Kans. City areas) 12:26 am CST southern California* 10:40 pm PST
s. Nebr., n. Missouri, central Illinois 12:28 am CST southern Nevada 10:41 pm PST
s. Indiana, Cincinnati, W. Va. 1:28 am EST Utah* 11:41 pm MST
e. Virginia, DC area, Md., s. Penn.* 1:29 am EST central Calif. (Fresno area) 10:43 pm PST
Central Va., central N. Car., S. Car. 1:30 am EST n. Calif. (San Francisco-Sacramento)* 10:44 pm PST
Georgia, central & e. Tenn.* 1:31 am EST Oregon 10:45 pm PST
Georgia (again), Florida peninsula 1:32 am EST w. Washington state, s.w. Brit. Col.* 10:46 pm PST
Florida peninsula (again)* 1:33 am EST Oahu and Maui, Hawaii* 8:48 pm HST

Louisiana* 12:35 am CST
eastern Texas* 12:37 am CST
San Angelo to Lubbock, Texas 12:39 am CST

*These are regions that will see the flash for about half a minute. Other areas will see the flash for only a few seconds. Watch for about three minutes, starting a minute before the listed time.

How To Find NEAR as it Swings Past Earth:

NEAR Sunglint location diagram If you are in one of the sunglint regions listed above, look for the brightest star above the northwestern horizon, Capella, which will be about halfway between the horizon and straight overhead for the East Coast, and higher on the West Coast. Hold your hand at arm's length and stretch out your fingers, putting the end of your little finger at the top at Capella. The tip of your thumb, pointing straight down from Capella, will mark the approximate location where the sunglint will occur in the constellation Perseus, about 20 degrees below Capella. The glint should be very noticeable, about as bright as Capella, and will last several seconds.

Hawaii will see the brightest flash, as bright as Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. The view there will differ from other parts of the U.S., with Capella being above the northern horizon and the glint being below and to the left of Capella. Sky charts for locating the glint areas with binoculars and a map and animation showing the path of the sunglint can be found on the NEAR Web site:

For more information contact Helen Worth, JHU/APL Office of Public Affairs. Phone: 240-228-5113; or fax: 240-228-6123, or visit the APL NEAR Web page:

B-roll animation of NEAR's Earth swingby and animation photos are available. See Web page for images.