Tim Furniss/LONDON

The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous spacecraft, NEAR Shoemaker, made space history on 12 February when it became the first object to land on an asteroid.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory's $223 million craft, funded by NASA, had completed its major mission to map the asteroid Eros, taking over 160,000 images. The spacecraft became the first to orbit an asteroid last year, following its launch in February 1996 and a failed first attempt to orbit Eros in 1999 due to an engine fault.

The landing on Eros, 315 million kilometres (195 million miles) from Earth, was not part of the original schedule for the spacecraft. The landing, which was given only a 1% chance of success, provided high resolution close-up images of the 33km-long, irregular-shaped asteroid.

Five engine burns took the 1,100kg NEAR Shoemaker down from its 25km orbit of the asteroid. While still returning images, the spacecraft touched down at a relative speed of about 5.6km/h. The Shoemaker images of the surface of Eros resembled the surface of Earth's moon.

Weak signals continued to be transmitted from the spacecraft after touchdown and if the solar panels continue to work, transmissions could be sent for a further three months, according to NASA. The signals, however, are too weak to contain data or digital images.

Apart from the moon, spacecraft landings have been made on Venus and Mars, while a capsule has penetrated the atmosphere of Jupiter.

Eros is the fifth asteroid to be explored from relatively close quarters. Previously, the Galileo craft flew past Gaspra and Ida en route to Jupiter, NEAR Shoemaker itself passed Malthide, while Deep Space 1 flew close to asteroid Braille.

NEAR Shoemaker was the first spacecraft in NASA's "faster, better cheaper" Discovery programme to be launched and was followed by Mars Pathfinder, Lunar Prospector and Stardust in 1996, 1998 and 1999, respectively. It will be followed by four new missions in 2001-4 to collect solar wind particles, explore comets and orbit Mercury.

Source: Flight International