Asteroid Discovery Comes After NASA Reactivates NEOWISE
January 8, 2014

Asteroid Discovery Comes After NASA Reactivates NEOWISE

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Considering NASA’s recent budget cuts, re-purposing the space agency’s assets is more important than ever.

One asset re-purposed by NASA, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), has made its first discovery since coming out of hibernation last year: a never-before-seen asteroid dubbed 2013 YP139.

Formerly known as the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the orbiter was shut down in 2011 after completing the most comprehensive survey ever of asteroids and comets. In September, the craft was reactivated and given a new purpose: help NASA spot potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs). NEOWISE will also be used to assess previously identified asteroids that have potential as future exploration targets.

"We are delighted to get back to finding and characterizing asteroids and comets, especially those that come into Earth’s neighborhood," said Amy Mainzer, the mission's principal investigator from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "With our infrared sensors that detect heat, we can learn about their sizes and reflectiveness."

NEOWISE spotted the newly-named asteroid on Dec. 29. Using a computer analysis, mission scientists were able to detect the moving object against the backdrop of stationary stars. The Earth orbiter was able to observe 2013 YP139 several times over half a day before the asteroid moved outside its view.

Researchers at the University of Arizona and Peter Birtwhistle, an amateur astronomer at the Great Shefford Observatory in West Berkshire, UK, helped to confirm the find via follow-up observations.

The newly-discovered asteroid is currently about 27 million miles from Earth. An infrared analysis showed that 2013 YP139 is approximately 0.4 miles in diameter and extremely dark in coloration, like a giant piece of space coal. The asteroid travels around the sun in an elliptical orbit tilted just off the plane occupied by our Solar System’s planets. Considered potentially hazardous, NASA said the asteroid’s orbit will bring it as close as 300,000 miles from Earth, just past the distance to the moon. However, this flyby will not take place within the next century.

NASA expects 2013 YP139 will be the first of hundreds of asteroid discoveries for NEOWISE and as the observatory continues to spot asteroids and comets – the observations will be directed to the clearinghouse for solar system objects known as the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass. At the clearinghouse, potential discoveries are compared against the existing catalog of solar system objects. Follow-up observations are then conducted by a community of professional and amateur astronomers to establish firm orbits for any previously undetected objects.

“The spacecraft is in excellent health, and the new images look just as good as they were before hibernation,” Manzier said in December after NEOWISE came out of hibernation.

Some objects analyzed using NEOWISE could become candidates for NASA's upcoming asteroid initiative, the first-ever mission to locate, capture, and move an asteroid for exploration purposes. The mission is expected to demand an unprecedented technological feat that will pave the way to new technologies and scientific discoveries.

“It is important that we accumulate as much of this type of data as possible while the spacecraft remains a viable asset,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s NEOWISE program executive in Washington. “NEOWISE is an important element to enhance our ability to support the initiative.”