The January 22-23 flyby of the NEAR spacecraft put the U.S. on watch for its first naked-eye glimpse of an interplanetary spacecraft. The southern states from east to west, and especially Hawai'i, got the best view because of clear skies and darkness that made it easier to see sunglints off the spacecraft's four solar panels. Although closest-encounter data is still being processed, early indications were that NEAR passed within 336 miles of southwest Iran, as predicted. (Encounter data is being posted on the NEAR Web page as soon as it is available: http://sd-www.jhuapl.edu/NEAR/.)
The first sighting of NEAR was made at about 1:30 p.m. EST by an astronomer in Caussols, France, using a 0.9- meter telescope, as the spacecraft approached far above the Middle East. When sighted, NEAR was 580,000 miles from Earth and within a half-mile of its expected location.
On January 23, NEAR took a series of images of Asia, Africa, and Antarctica as it moved away from Earth, and during the following weeks, its Multi-Spectral Imager and Near-Infrared Spectrograph were calibrated using proven measurements of Earth and lunar geological features. Over the next year, as NEAR closes in on Eros, scientists and engineers will be developing and testing flight and ground software for the spacecraft and finalizing procedures for the yearlong encounter with the asteroid.
NEAR's study of Eros will be the first in-depth examination of a near-Earth asteroid and is expected to yield information that will help scientists better understand the evolution of our solar system. NEAR, which is being tracked by NASA's Deep Space Network, is the first mission in the Discovery series.
These images were taken at 80-minute intervals, as the spacecraft's distance from Earth increased from 92,000 miles (148,000 kilometers) to 160,000 miles (256,000 kilometers). They clearly show Earth's clockwise rotations as viewed from the spacecraft's perspective, starting from the upper left image. The South Pole is at the center of each image, and the continent of Antarctica is surrounded by sea ice and storm fronts.