A highly successful space telescope is being brought out of retirement to help in the search for dangerous asteroids that could threaten the Earth.
From next month, engineers will try to wake up the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) probe from its state of hibernation to seek out the space rocks and those other missiles, comets, in a project called NEOWISE.
NEO stands for Near-Earth Object and is used for those cosmic missiles that cross or come close to the Earth’s orbit.
WISE was launched in December 2009 on a multipurpose mission to examine stars and galaxies in infrared light but also to look for new asteroids. It was incredibly successful in all its tasks and discovered and characterised tens of thousands of previously unknown asteroids throughout the Solar System.
Now NASA wants to reactivate it to to concentrate on discovering the asteroids with orbits that bring them within 45,000 million km (28 million miles) of our own orbit.
NASA expects that WISE will use its 40cm (16in) telescope and infrared camera to find about 150 new asteroids that come into our danger zone, and to characterise the size, reflective properties(albedo) and thermal properties of around 2,000 others that have previously been found.
John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington, said: “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.
“Reactivating WISE is an excellent example of how we are leveraging existing capabilities across the agency to achieve our goal.”
WISE’s new mission could also help prepare for NASA’s stated goal to identify, capture and relocate an asteroid.
WISE took about 7,500 infrared images every day during its primary mission, from January 2010 to February 2011. As part of a project called NEOWISE, that included the most accurate survey to date of NEOs. NASA turned most of WISE’s electronics off at the end of the primary mission.
“The data collected by NEOWISE two years ago have proven to be a gold mine for the discovery and characterization of the NEO population,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s NEOWISE program executive in Washington. “It is important that we accumulate as much of this type of data as possible while the WISE spacecraft remains a viable asset.”
Asteroids do not emit any visible light of their own, but do reflect sunlight. This makes infrared sensors 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.
“The team is ready and after a quick checkout, we’re going to hit the ground running,” said Amy Mainzer, NEOWISE principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “NEOWISE not only gives us a better understanding of the asteroids and comets we study directly, but it will help us refine our concepts and mission operation plans for future, space-based near-Earth object cataloging missions.”
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