Professor reaches for asteroid

By Cara Miller

Arizona Daily Wildcat

A UA scientist has been recruited by NASA to work on the first spacecraft designed to rendezvous with an asteroid.

William Boynton, professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, will be part of the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, which may help answer questions about the nature of objects like asteroids and comets.

According to NASA, asteroids and comets are believed to consist of debris left over from planetary formation 4.5 billion years ago and are believed to be valuable clues to understanding how the solar system formed and evolved.

"Asteroids are very different from planets because they are primitive bodies," Boynton said. "Very little has happened to them since they've been formed."

Boynton said in studying the asteroid, they might be able to determine how the solar system was formed.

"The asteroids are the building blocks left over from when the planets were formed," he said. "Since the asteroids formed 4.5 billion years ago, nothing has happened to them. Planets, on the other hand, have gone through many processes."

The spacecraft Delta 2 will use a Gamma-Ray Spectrometer to study the elements in the asteroid. Elements such as iron, silicon and potassium give off gamma-rays which can be detected by the spectrometer.

"This study may help

to constrain various theories on how the solar system was formed," Boynton said.

Scheduled for launch in February 1996, the spacecraft will arrive at and orbit around asteroid 433 Eros by January 1999. NEAR will survey the composition of Eros for at least a year from altitudes as close as 15 miles.

Eros is one of the largest and best-observed asteroids whose orbits cross Earth's path. This asteroid is closely related to the more numerous "Main Belt" asteroids that orbit the sun in a vast doughnut-shaped ring between Mars and Jupiter.

Boynton said NASA picked Eros because of its location.

"It's relatively easy to get to," he said.

The asteroid orbits in an ellipse between Earth and Mars. He said the asteroid gets as close as 1.13 astronomical units away from the sun. The earth orbits at 1 unit from the sun.

Boynton was selected because of his participation in the Mars Observer Mission and his expertise in Gamma-Ray Spectrometry.

NEAR will be the first launch in NASA's Discovery program, an initiative based on small planetary science missions with short development cycles and stringent cost caps. It requires missions to proceed from development to flight in less than three years with total spacecraft and instrument development costs limited to no more than $150 million.

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