NASA spacecraft reactivated to hunt for asteroids

This artist’s concept shows the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE spacecraft, in its orbit around Earth. In September of 2013, engineers will attempt to bring the mission out of hibernation to hunt for more asteroids and comets in a project called NEOWISE. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA will revive the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) next month with the goal of discovering and characterizing near-Earth objects (NEOs), space rocks that can be found orbiting within 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) from Earth’s path around the sun.

NASA anticipates WISE will use its 16-inch (40-centimeter) telescope and infrared cameras to discover about 150 previously unknown NEOs and characterize the size, albedo and thermal properties of about 2,000 others — including some which could be candidates for the agency’s recently announced asteroid initiative.

This image shows the potentially hazardous near-Earth object 1998 KN3 as it zips past a cloud of dense gas and dust near the Orion nebula. NEOWISE, the asteroid-hunting portion of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, mission, snapped infrared pictures of the asteroid, seen as the yellow-green dot at upper left. Because asteroids are warmed by the sun to roughly room temperature, they glow brightly at the infrared wavelengths used by WISE. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“The WISE mission achieved its mission’s goals and as NEOWISE extended the science even further in its survey of asteroids. NASA is now extending that record of success, which will enhance our ability to find potentially hazardous asteroids, and support the new asteroid initiative,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington.

Launched in December 2009 to look for the glow of celestial heat sources from asteroids, stars and galaxies, WISE made about 7,500 images every day during its primary mission, from January 2010 to February 2011. As part of a project called NEOWISE, the spacecraft made the most accurate survey to date of NEOs. NASA turned most of WISE’s electronics off when it completed its primary mission.

Because asteroids reflect but do not emit visible light, infrared sensors are a powerful tool for discovering, cataloging and understanding the asteroid population. Depending on an object’s reflectivity, or albedo, a small, light-colored space rock can look the same as a big, dark one. As a result, data collected with optical telescopes using visible light can be deceiving.

During 2010, NEOWISE observed about 158,000 rocky bodies out of approximately 600,000 known objects. Discoveries included 21 comets, more than 34,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and 135 near-Earth objects.

The WISE prime mission was to scan the entire celestial sky in infrared light. It captured more than 2.7 million images in multiple infrared wavelengths and cataloged more than 560 million objects in space, ranging from galaxies faraway to asteroids and comets much closer to Earth.

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