Spacecraft lands on asteroid for the first time

Space probe NEAR Shoemaker has come to a bouncing landing on asteroid Eros, the first time any craft has landed on this kind of space rock. Against tremendous odds, the unmanned craft kept sending signals even after it touched down on the cosmic object, 196 million miles from Earth. It probably bounced at least once, possibly as high as 100 yards (meters) before it came to a stop, astronomers say. The mission would give space voyagers practice for future landings on asteroids and even on comets, Ed Weiler, the head of space science at NASA, is quoted by Reuters as saying. Asteroids and comets are primordial bodies that could give clues to the very beginning of the solar system. Scientists had given the craft less than a 1 percent chance of being able to send signals back to Earth, after it reached the asteroid's boulder-strewn surface. The craft's terminal velocity - the speed it was going when it came to rest on the asteroid - was about 3.5 miles an hour, the speed a pedestrian might walk on Earth. But with gravity about one-thousandth that of Earth, bouncing was always a possibility. Strictly speaking, NEAR was never meant to land - it orbited the 21-mile-long asteroid for a year, taking some 160,000 images and beaming them back to Earth. But it was at the end of its expected life and had satisfied all its objectives, so the scientists decided a landing attempt could provide some "bonus science." While the craft is still sending signals back to Earth, it will not be able to transmit pictures. If it is being powered by its solar panels, it could stay "alive" for weeks and even be able to make it hop up off the surface again. NEAR Shoemaker -- short for Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous and in honour of the late astronomer Gene Shoemaker.

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