February 1, 2011

NEOWISE Mission Comes To Completion

NASA said on Tuesday that its near-Earth objects Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWOSE) mission has completed its survey of small bodies, asteroids and comets in our solar system.

The mission's previous discoveries include 20 comets, over 33,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and 134 near-Earth objects (NEOs).

NEOs are asteroids and comets with orbits that come within 28 million miles of Earth's path around the sun.

NASA said that NEOWISE is an enhancement of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission that launched in December of 2009. 

WISE scans the entire celestial sky in infrared light about 1.5 times.  It has captured over 2.7 million images of objects in space.

The spacecraft ran out of the frozen coolant that keeps its instruments cold in early October 2010.  However, two of its four infrared cameras remained in operation.

These two channels were still useful for asteroid hunting, so NASA extended the NEOWISE portion of the WISE mission by four months.

"Even just one year of observations from the NEOWISE project has significantly increased our catalog of data on NEOs and the other small bodies of the solar systems," Lindley Johnson, NASA's program executive for the NEO Observation Program, said in a press release.

NASA said that now that NEOWISE has successfully completed a full sweep of the main asteroid belt, the WISE spacecraft will go into hibernation mode and remain in polar orbit around Earth.

NEOWISE also confirmed the presence of objects in the main belt that had already been detected.  The mission observed about 153,000 rocky bodies out of about 500,000 known objects in just one year.

According to NASA, NEOWISE also observed known objects closer and farther to us than the main belt, including about 2,000 asteroids that orbit along with Jupiter, hundreds of NEOs and over 100 comets.

NASA said that the mission took longer to survey the whole asteroid belt than WISE took to scan the entire sky because most of the asteroids are moving in the same direction around the sun as the spacecraft moves while it orbits Earth.

"You can think of Earth and the asteroids as racehorses moving along in a track," Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator of NEOWISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a press release.

"We're moving along together around the sun, but the main belt asteroids are like horses on the outer part of the track. They take longer to orbit than us, so we eventually lap them."

NASA said that the first batch of observations from the WISE mission will be available to the public and astronomical community in April.

"WISE has unearthed a mother lode of amazing sources, and we're having a great time figuring out their nature," Edward (Ned) Wright, the principal investigator of WISE at UCLA, said in a press release. 


Image Caption: During its one-year mission, NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, mapped the entire sky in infrared light. Among the multitudes of astronomical bodies that have been discovered by the NEOWISE portion of the WISE mission are 20 comets. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA (View WISE image gallery)    


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