Fly-by produces no pictures for UT geologist

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A disappointed geologist will return to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville without the dramatic images he had hoped for after the failure of a NASA spacecraft to photograph asteroid 9969 Braille.

Dr. Dan Britt, the newest member of UT’s Planetary Geosciences Institute, was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday, ready to analyze photos of the small asteroid. But the computer controlling the craft’s camera failed to point the lens in the proper direction.

“Space is a big place, and the field of view of the camera is pretty narrow,” Britt said. “Even if you’re right next to it, it’s easy to miss something if you’re pointed in the wrong direction.

“The computer misinterpreted where the asteroid was and pointed the camera in the wrong direction.”

The project was successful by all other measures, NASA representatives said. A new self-correcting navigation system had guided the craft to within 10 miles of the asteroid’s surface, the closest fly-by to an asteroid ever attempted, NASA representatives said. Eleven other new technologies on the craft, including its ion propulsion system, were deemed successful.

“We had a particles and fields spectrometer that was able to detect some particles coming off the asteroid,” said Britt. “We also got a couple of pictures of the asteroid on the outbound leg, but they’re not exactly the thrilling close-ups that we’re interested in.”

Britt, a veteran of the Mars Pathfinder project who joined the UT faculty in July, was not able to get the images that would have allowed him to determine the make-up and geologic structure of the asteroid.

“The real lesson is that new technologies have a little bit of risk. It’s an inherently risky business,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll do it better the next time.”