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After a year in orbit around the asteroid 433 Eros, a spacecraft known as NEAR was just about done. It had accomplished its main objectives several times over, snapping 160,000 pictures of Eros and beaming back volumes of data on the asteroid's composition and structure.
But NEAR had outlived its planned lifetime, and it was just about out of gas. So scientists and engineers decided to end its mission with a bonus: NEAR would touch down on the asteroid, and perhaps live long enough to report about conditions on the surface.
NEAR wasn't designed to land on anything -- only to orbit the asteroid. And for a while, even that part of the mission looked like it might not happen. A problem caused the spacecraft to miss its planned arrival date of January 1999. Engineers were able to regroup, though, and nudge NEAR into orbit on Valentine's Day of 2000 -- a date that seems appropriate for an asteroid named for a god of love.
From orbit, NEAR found that Eros is probably a chip off a much larger body. It also discovered that Eros is covered by a thick layer of dust, and that it has no magnetic field.
Ten years ago today, NEAR made a perfect landing on Eros -- it settled to the surface at just three miles per hour. It survived well enough to beam back more observations through the end of February 2001.
Today, NEAR is a silent relic of the human exploration of the solar system: the first spacecraft to land on an asteroid.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010