NEAR victory; Asteroid satellite: Applied Physics Lab's success reverses NASA's run of mishaps, promises insight.


IT WAS billed as a Valentine's Day affair, a love connection. A space satellite hooking up with a celestial body near Mars on Monday, Feb. 14.

Indeed, love abounded when the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) successfully orbited the asteroid Eros, named for the Greek god of love. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration needed a mission it could love after some recent failures near the Red Planet.

The $165 million Mars Polar Lander disappeared as it approached the planet in early December. Three months earlier, a metric conversion error sent the Mars Climate Explorer to its doom. Thanks to scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab south of Columbia, the satellite entered a 280-mile orbit of the elongated Eros asteroid on Monday. The craft, controlled from APL, snapped spectacular close-ups of a 3.4-mile-wide crater and boulders.

Keeping NEAR in orbit around Eros is no easy task -- it's by far the smallest celestial body to be orbited by a man-made satellite. The asteroid is roughly the size of Howard County. Scientists hope to gradually lower the orbit to within 31 miles.

In the coming months, NEAR could bring more insight into the origins of the universe. The mission's continued success depends largely on the skill of Howard County-based APL scientists.

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