February 12 – NEAR Goes Far

On February 12th 2001, NASA successfully landed the NEAR-Shoemaker probe onto the surface of asteroid 433 Eros, completing the first ever successful soft-landing on an asteroid.

NEAR stands for “Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous”, while the  Shoemaker refers to Eugene Shoemaker, American pioneer of astrogeology, and discoverer of the immensely famous Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which you will probably remember colliding with Jupiter in July 1994.

Close-up of Eros (from a mosaic of shots taken by NEAR). Image: NASA.

Close-up of Eros (from a mosaic of shots taken by NEAR). Image: NASA.

NEAR had been launched on February 17th 1996, and although the main aim of the mission was to study Eros from orbit, it also flew by asteroid 253 Mathilde in June 1997, and spent over a year studying gamma ray burstsshort bursts of energy thought to originate in supernovae (or occasionally binary neutron star mergers) in very distant galaxies.

Also on this day, spacecraft Venera 1 (code-named “Sputnik 8” on this side of the iron curtain at the time because Soviet mission details were hard to come by) was launched in 1961 from Baikonur Cosmodrome on it’s way to Venus.

Venera 1

Venera 1

Venera 1 (pictured) was a great looking craft, straight from a 1930’s sci-fi movie (I think the phrase I’m looking for is über retro).  Unfortunately though, it didn’t work quite as well as your average weird-looking device launched by an evil empire usually does in the movies.  The last successful communication with it was on February 17th 1961, and there is no evidence of any contact later than this.  Communication with the craft was officially designated as “failed” on March 4th.

And finally today, asteroid 303 Josephina was discovered on February 12th 1891 by Italian astronomer Elia Filippo Francesco Giuseppe Maria Millosevich, the man, coincidentally, who predicted the orbit of Eros. This main belt asteroid of about 99 km diameter was one of only two he discovered, and was apparently named “in homage to a person dear to me”. How nice.



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