Star crossed spacecraft nears Valentine's date

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The Independent US

Trouble-free and performing as planned, a robot craft is on target to become the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid in a Valentine's Day rendezvous with a space rock named for the Greek god of love.

Trouble-free and performing as planned, a robot craft is on target to become the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid in a Valentine's Day rendezvous with a space rock named for the Greek god of love.

Mission officials said the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous, or NEAR, spacecraft was set to automatically fire its thrusters and settle into a 124-mile orbit of the gray, potato-shaped rock called Eros.

Thrusters were scheduled to fire automatically on Monday morning. Eros is so distant from Earth that it takes 14 1/2 minutes for a radio signal confirming the rocket firing to reach NEAR mission control.

If successful, the spacecraft will start a yearlong study of Eros, conducting research that one day may help humans defend the Earth against a "killer asteroid" like the one thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs.

Mission officials said Sunday night that NEAR was humming along flawlessly, operating as expected on automatic instructions that were sent to the spacecraft on Saturday.

"Everything is operating right on time," Mission Director Robert Farquhar said. "It is working exactly as we expected. We can just sit and wait now."

As if nature was celebrating Valentine's Day, a photo taken during the approach captured an image of a heart-shaped crater on the surface of Eros. Farquhar said the shape was created by an arrangement of light and shadow on the face of the asteroid.

Eros is 21 miles long and eight miles wide. Like this planet, Eros orbits the sun, about 160 million miles from Earth.

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