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February 14, 2010

Never let it be said that space scientists aren't romantic. A mission to explore an asteroid that's named for a god of love arrived at the asteroid on Valentine's Day in 2000.

The mission was NEAR -- the Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous. Its destination was Eros, a peanut-shaped asteroid that's about 20 miles long.

Eros is one of a class of asteroids whose orbits come close to Earth's orbit around the Sun. Right now, Eros's orbit stays a few million miles outside Earth's. But over the next couple of million years, the gravity of Mars could push Eros close enough to the Sun to cross Earth's orbit. If that happens, the asteroid could one day hit Earth, wiping out life across the entire planet.

NEAR was supposed to enter orbit in early 1999. But a glitch sent it tumbling out of control and scuttled the attempt. The next chance came on Valentine's Day of 2000, and this time it worked perfectly.

The craft spent a year looping around Eros. It snapped thousands of pictures, and measured the asteroid's mass and composition. It found that a giant impact about a billion years ago rattled Eros enough to erase many of its older craters.

By February of 2001, NEAR was about out of fuel. So even though it wasn't designed as a lander, engineers managed to nudge it gently down to the asteroid's surface. NEAR continued to operate for two more weeks -- providing one last lingering glance at its romantic companion.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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