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NASA Telescope Discovers 25,000 New Asteroids

July 16, 2010

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has discovered approximately 25,000 new asteroids over the past six months using their new Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope, according to the Associated Press (AP).

According to AP Science Writer Alicia Chang, 95 of those asteroids are considered “near Earth,” meaning that they are less than 30 million miles from the planet. However, Chang notes that none of the recently discovered asteroids pose any threat to Earth in the foreseeable future.

The $320 million WISE project, which was launched on December 14, 2009, will be completing its first complete scan of the sky on Saturday. The 16-inch telescope was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University and it orbits the Earth at a height of 300 miles taking photographs every 11 seconds.

A NASA fact sheet, released by the space agency on January 4, states that WISE “will provide an all-sky survey from 3 to 25 Þ¼m with 500,000 times the sensitivity” of previous sky surveys. “The survey will help search for the origins of planets, stars, and galaxies and create an infrared atlas whose legacy will endure for decades.”

“Most telescopes focus on the hottest and brightest objects in the universe,” Richard Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told Chang on Friday. “WISE is especially sensitive to seeing what’s cool and dark, what you could call the stealth objects of the universe.”

According to the NASA fact sheet, during its mission, WISE will search and catalog the most luminous galaxies in the universe, the stars closest to the sun, and the majority of Main Belt asteroids that are at least 3km in size. It will also allow scientists to study the evolution of planetary debris discs, the history of star formation, and much more.

To date, Chang reports, “WISE has also sighted 15 new comets. It has spied hundreds of potential brown dwarfs–stellar objects that are bigger than a planet but much smaller than a star–and confirmed the existence of 20 of them, including some of the coldest ever known”¦The telescope also detected what’s thought to be an ultraluminous galaxy, more than 10 billion light years away.”

“We’re filling in the blanks on everything in the universe from near-Earth objects to forming galaxies,” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory project scientist Peter Eisenhardt told the Associated Press. “There’s quite a zoo”¦ The real discoveries will come when we let the whole world in on the data.”

WISE discovered its first, previously unseen asteroid back on January 12. The near-Earth object, which was located 158 million km (98 million miles) from the planet and dubbed 2010 AB78, was confirmed by researchers at the University of Hawaii and announced to the public on January 25. It was said to be approximately 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter and followed an elliptical orbit.

“This is just the beginning,” Ned Wright, the mission’s principal investigator, said in January press release. “We’ve got a fire hose of data pouring down from space.”

“It is great to receive the first of many anticipated near-Earth object discoveries by the WISE system,” Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL, added. “Analysis of the WISE data will go a long way toward understanding the true nature of this population.”

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