SAN DIEGO, July 30 -- Scientists who were formerly preoccupied with the precise data streaming in from the flyover of the asteroid Eros early this year were given a chance Monday to sit back and enjoy the ethereal view they may have missed at the time.
A film of the fly-by -- pieced together from some 100,000 still photographs taken by the NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) spacecraft -- debuted Monday evening in front of around 200 appreciative space scientists and engineers at the annual meeting of the International Society for Optical Engineering in San Diego.
The production, the likes of which may become a regular product of future deep-space probe missions, is aimed at recreating the view from the unmanned probe that skimmed past Eros for several months and then carefully descended to the heavily cratered surface on Feb. 12, 2001.
The four-year-long mission to the potato-shaped space rock was the first close-up look scientists have received of an asteroid, and the spacecraft's close encounter did not disappoint the room filled with grown men with childlike anticipation at the results.
"We obtained six weeks of very high-resolution data," declared Mark Robinson, a member of the NEAR imaging team from Northwestern University.
The primitive geology of Eros is truly that of an ancient member of the solar system. Pockmarked by craters caused by millions of years of collisions with other meandering space rocks, the asteroid has huge boulders scattered across its surface.
The films, which show black-and-white images of the irregularly shaped Eros as it appears to tumble through space, clearly show the craters and boulders and the shadows they produce when the distant sun shines on them at various angles.
Eros is also coated with a fine layer of dust similar to that found on the moon. The presence of the celestial dust was something of a surprise since it confirmed the presence of enough of a gravitational pull coming from the object, roughly twice the size of Manhattan; to keep dust particles adhered to the surface.
The dust actually cushioned NEAR as it landed, a task it had not been designed to perform but was assigned during the closing days of the mission when the original objectives had been achieved and the scientists pondered what to do next.
"The spacecraft was never meant to be a lander," Robinson told the audience. "It is only about the size of a refrigerator and is basically very delicate."
"I don't know how many of the programmers actually thought the spacecraft would survive," he said, breaking out in a proud grin. "We just kept getting lucky."
The mission also confirmed that Eros was a single solid object rather than a collection of loose rocks and other rubble clustered together.
NEAR was equipped with the latest in high-resolution optics and may be a forerunner of future space exploration vehicles that will give earth-bound astronomers a view comparable to being there personally.
The final pictures clearly show rocks about a meter in diameter. The transmissions ended on impact because the lens was buried in the dirt and the high-power transmission antenna was knocked out of alignment; otherwise, NEAR came through the landing in excellent shape.
NEAR has since been shut down, although NASA may try to make contact with it again in the autumn to see how well it has survived the rigors of space.
"It costs a lot of money to keep a spacecraft going, and there wasn't a lot more science that we could have done," Robinson said.
Unmanned probes like NEAR are, however, a lot cheaper to operate than a manned space flight, which makes these compact and cost-effective machines a promising way for the U.S. space program to get more bang for its buck.
A large portion of the San Diego conference is dedicated to the latest developments and advances in technology designed to give astronomers a clearer look at distant objects and more precise measurements of unseen energies such as X-rays and ultra-violet light. The new stargazing technologies will certainly fill astronomy textbooks and databases with new data, and will also provide the kinds of thrilling images that appeal to both scientists on the cutting edge and to the more pedestrian earthlings watching from front-row seats.
For an exclusive sample of the movie clips, visit the UPI Web site at upi.com/eros.