Asteroid Visit

(This column was first published in the February 21, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    I am humbled by the Valentine present given us last week by our astronomical engineers.

    Consider the magnitude of what they achieved. Four years ago the unmanned, NEAR (for Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral. Three years later its first approach to its target, the asteroid Eros, missed but the ground-based engineers were able to swing the vehicle back through space to make a perfect approach on this February 14th. What better day to arrive at Eros, named for the god of love?

    And what a remarkable achievement. This asteroid is a potato-shaped rock 21 miles long and 8 miles thick, its orbit mostly out beyond Mars. These engineers have guided this automobile-sized spacecraft weighing less than a ton almost two billion miles to reach a target only about the size of Canandaguia Lake -- the equivalent of shooting from Buffalo at a marshmallow in New Orleans.

    Now they have maneuvered the vehicle into orbit around Eros, another extremely delicate task. Placing a satellite in earth orbit is "merely" a matter of getting the satellite to the right height and velocity for its mass. Then, because the earth is so nearly spherical and exerts a near constant pull of gravity, the spaceship will remain there until friction slows it over a long period of time.

    Not so for Eros. Its odd configuration and its rapid rotation -- it revolves once every 5 1/4 hours -- makes the exertion of its very weak gravity a much more serious problem. But this problem too has been solved. After approaching closer, the spaceship has now retreated to circle in an orbit 209 miles from the asteroid. Later it will drop to 31 and finally to 22 miles from the surface, maintaining those distances through its own power. The engineers have as yet not decided whether to attempt finally to approach still closer.

    To gain a better idea of how weak is Eros's gravity, from its surface any high school pitcher could throw a baseball upward fast enough to launch it into space. Not that he or she would want to do so for the climate there is none too pleasant. There is no atmosphere and the temperature range is from boiling heat in daytime to 270 degrees below freezing at night.

    On the evening of this spectacular accomplishment, Andrew Cheng, one of the project senior scientists from the Johns Hopkins University was interviewed on television. I have rarely enjoyed an interview more. Here was a young man who looked no more than 16 years old, so excited he couldn't sit still. When he spoke, however, he was more than intelligent, he was masterful. Yes, we have had some malfunctions in our space program -- the Mars Polar Lander was one -- but I am satisfied that it is in good hands when this young man is an exemplar.

    On a broader scale we are, I believe, blessed in this country with gifted people -- scientists, artists, musicians, authors, architects, you name the field and celebrities come to mind -- and I hope that we will continue to nurture them through our educational programs. But as I watched Cheng describe the NEAR mission, I recalled a terrible episode when a local school administrator spoke out against special programs for gifted students. "Why do anything for them," he said, "They'll just go on to produce more Challenger accidents."

    Indeed Challenger and Mars accidents will happen in the future but so too will wonderful achievements like this still incomplete mission, a mission that is contributing to our understanding of these space rocks that threaten our very civilization.-- Gerry Rising

Note: Access to a variety of sites describing NEAR and Eros may be gained through Yahoo. The images shown here are from the NASA NEAR Spacecraft and Discovery is NEAR sites. A great deal of further information and more up-to-date images may be found at those sites. I highly recommend them to you.