Asteroid Tracking Sensor Passes Key Test
April 16, 2013

Infrared Sensor For Asteroid Tracking Mission Passes Key Test

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

A critical design test for an infrared sensor that could improve NASA's future ability to detect and track asteroids and comets has been passed.

The Near Earth Object Camera's (NEOCam) performance in an environment that mimicked the temperatures and pressures of deep space were assessed by the test. NEOCam will be the key instrument for a proposed new asteroid-hunting space-based telescope for which design and capability details have been published in a recent issue of the Journal of Optical Engineering.

NASA recently announced an initiative to develop the first-ever mission to identify, capture and relocate an asteroid closer to Earth for future exploration by astronauts. NEOCam could be a vital component in the planning of that mission.

"This sensor represents one of many investments made by NASA's Discovery Program and its Astrophysics Research and Analysis Program in innovative technologies to significantly improve future missions designed to protect Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids," said Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office.

Asteroids and comets with orbits that come within 28 million miles of Earth's orbit around the Sun are considered near-Earth objects. Though asteroids do not emit light, they do reflect it. Data collected with optical telescopes using visible light can be deceiving because it depends on how reflective the object being observed is. A small, light-colored space rock can look the same as a big, dark one, for example.

"Infrared sensors are a powerful tool for discovering, cataloging and understanding the asteroid population," said Amy Mainzer principal investigator for NASA's NEOWISE (Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer) mission at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "When you observe a space rock with infrared, you are seeing its thermal emissions, which can better define the asteroid's size, as well as tell you something about composition."

NEOCam is designed to be more reliable and lighter in weight for launching aboard future space-based telescopes, which would be located about four times the distance between Earth and the moon. This would allow NEOCam to observe the comings and goings of NEO's every day without being hampered by cloud cover and daylight.

Almost 10 years of scientific collaboration among JPL, the University of Rochester, which facilitated the test, and Teledyne Imaging Sensors, which developed the sensor, have culminated in the creation of NEOCam.

"We were delighted to see in this generation of detectors a vast improvement in sensitivity compared with previous generations," said Craig McMurtry of the University of Rochester.

NEOWISE is an enhancement of NASA's WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) mission, launched in December 2009, to scan the entire celestial sky in infrared light twice. WISE captured more than 2.7 million images of objects in space, ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids and comets close to Earth.

NEOWISE completed its survey of small bodies - asteroids and comets — in our solar system, cataloging previously unknown objects, including the discovery of 21 comets, more than 34,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and 134 NEOs.