NASA Explorer Leaves Retirement Track Space Rocks
August 22, 2013

NASA Explorer Leaves Retirement To Track Near-Earth Space Rocks

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

NASA announced on Wednesday that one member of its fleet will be coming out of retirement to become part of a project that will eventually lead to placing humans on an asteroid.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) discovered and categorized thousands of asteroids throughout the solar system before being decommissioned in February 2011. That retirement will end in September when the orbiter reawakens with a new mission – to detect near-Earth objects (NEOs), or space rocks that pass within 28 million miles of Earth's orbit around the sun.

The new mission will slightly repurpose WISE’s 16-inch telescope and infrared cameras to discover previously unknown NEOs. For about 2,000 currently known NEOs, WISE will record and characterize their size, thermal properties and reflection coefficient, or albedo.

Some of the objects observed on the new mission are expected to become candidates for NASA's recently announced asteroid initiative.

"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. "Reactivating WISE is an excellent example of how we are leveraging existing capabilities across the agency to achieve our goal."

The asteroid initiative is a groundbreaking endeavor to identify, capture and relocate an asteroid into a stable Earth orbit. NASA expects to then send manned missions to the orbiting space rock.

If it were to be accomplished, it would be an unparalleled technological accomplishment, most likely leading to new scientific discoveries and an improved capacity to protect our home planet. The asteroid initiative essentially aims to achieve President Barack Obama's goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025.

From January 2010 to February 2011, WISE scanned the sky in four infrared wavelengths of light and produced 7,500 images daily. In October 2010, the orbiter initiated its role in the NEOWISE project, which was focused on searching for comets and asteroids near to Earth’s orbit.

"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."

The NEOWISE project observed almost 160,000 objects out of approximately 600,000. The project discovered 21 comets, over 34,000 asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter as well as 135 NEOs. According to the NEOWISE team, they are ready to take the highly-accomplished orbiter out of retirement and put it back into service.

"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, Calif. "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."