NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker is the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid and to land on it.
Asteroids, also called minor planets, are small, rocky bodies that are leftover during the formation of planets about 4.5 billion years ago. Billions of such rocks exist in our solar system and majority of them concentrated in the main belt of asteroids between the planets Mars and Jupiter.
These building blocks of planets could also possibly explain the evolution of Earth.
Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR)
The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), which is later renamed as NEAR Shoemaker, is a low-cost mission under NASA. Its target is the minor planet (asteroid) 433 Eros, which is approximately 355 million km from Earth. Its aim is to gather information about its physical properties and composition.
Eros was the first near-Earth asteroid to be discovered. It was given the name Eros, that is the son of Mercury and Venus. It was discovered by two scientists independently, German astronomer Carl Gustav Witt and French astronomer Auguste Charlois in 1898 on the same day.
Features of NEAR Spacecraft
NEAR spacecraft was the first spacecraft to work on solar cells for power for its operations beyond Mars orbit.
NEAR’s closest approach was 1,200 km of the minor planet (asteroid). From this close distance, it took 60% photograph of the asteroid and gather data which indicated that the asteroid is covered with craters. It studied the asteroid’s mass, structure, geology, composition, gravity, and magnetic field.
NEAR is the first human-made object to orbit any minor planet.
Even though it was built to orbit, but it also went on to survive a landing on February 12, 2001, thus making it the first spacecraft to land on an asteroid.