With a thud that no one could hear and perhaps a huge bounce, a nearly out-of-gas NASA space probe slowly crashed into an asteroid Monday afternoon -- and survived to tell about it.
The $117 million spacecraft, called NEAR-Shoemaker, was designed to circle the 21-mile-long, shoe-shaped space rock named 433 Eros and photograph it, but not to land on it. But its mission later was changed to include a landing.
The feat, accomplished by scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory here at the end of NEAR-Shoemaker's mission, made it the first human-made piece of gear to touch down on an asteroid.
The idea of the controlled crash-landing was to get truly close-up photos of 433 Eros and learn how to land on tiny space objects. NASA has no plans to land on a small space object, but its instruments will be aboard a European consortium's craft that is due to land on a comet by the end of the decade.
The photos Monday showed, at first look, little more than corroding boulders and "ghost rings" formed by the dust-filled rims of old craters.
A preprogrammed plan calls for firing the probe's rocket engines late Wednesday. If it is positioned right, it could take off again.
In another part of the universe Monday, two spacewalking astronauts hung a window shutter on the sparkling new Destiny science laboratory, providing an unparalleled view of Earth from the international space station.
As soon as Thomas Jones and Robert Curbeam Jr. placed the aluminum shutter on Destiny's 20-inch porthole and hooked up a gear box, the space station's residents cranked open the shutter from inside.
"It worked!" Curbeam called out.
The shutter is needed to protect the window against damage from micrometeorites. The window had been covered with insulating material before the shutter was installed, and no one could look out.
The porthole, 6 inches thick and made of four panes, is the finest optical-quality window ever built into a spacecraft. Astronauts and cosmonauts will photograph and observe the Earth through the window, using high-powered cameras and telescopes.
The first picture, naturally, was of the two space shuttle Atlantis spacewalkers. Space station Alpha's commander, Bill Shepherd, called it "an awesome, awesome shot."