NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) recently got a glimpse of a never-before-seen asteroid, bringing the space agency closer to its goal of locating and rerouting an asteroid by 2025.
It is the first such discovery for the asteroid observatory since it was reactivated in September. Originally called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the spacecraft was used to create a comprehensive survey of asteroids and comets but was shut down in 2011 after completing its primary mission. The renamed NEOWISE was given a new mission: Assist NASA efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects. It will also help categorize previously detected asteroids that could be considered targets for future missions.
On Dec. 29, NEOWISE used its sophisticated software to spot an object among stationary stars. The object turned out to be a near-Earth asteroid, dubbed 2013 YP139. The spacecraft's equipment includes a 16-inch telescope and four infrared detectors of 1 million pixels each. Infrared sensors, similar to NEOWISE's cameras, are a powerful tool for discovering, cataloguing, and understanding asteroids, according to NASA.
At the bottom of the instrument is a bus that contains computers, electronics, battery, and reaction wheels that keep the observatory operating properly in space. Additionally, NEOWISE contains a high-gain antenna for transmitting science images to the ground. NASA said NEOWISE's sensitivity is hundreds of times better than its predecessor, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, because of its next-generation technology.
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The discovery was confirmed by researchers at the University of Arizona, who used a Spacewatch telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory.
NASA said it expects 2013 YP139 to be just one of hundreds of asteroid discoveries to be made by NEOWISE. Before going into hibernation, WISE found more than 34,000 asteroids and characterized 158,000 throughout the solar system between 2010 and early 2011.
"The initiative represents an unprecedented technological feat that will lead to new scientific discoveries and technological capabilities that will help protect our home planet and achieve the goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025," the agency said in a press release.
NASA officially launched its asteroid research mission in April. It set aside $105 million for developing technology to mine asteroids in space. The mission will combine the capabilities of the Orion crew capsule and the Space Launch System rocket with yet-to-be-developed technologies. The 2025 mission to visit an asteroid in space will require refined spacecraft designs and improvements to communication systems, data storage and transfer, and space navigation.
Elena Malykhina has written for The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, Adweek, and Newsday. She covers the federal government, including NASA's space missions, for InformationWeek.
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