NASA WISE Telescope May Be Re-activated as Asteroid Hunter

Image: NASA WISE Telescope May Be Re-activated as Asteroid Hunter

Friday, 02 Aug 2013 06:13 AM

By Michael Mullins

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NASA’s WISE Telescope is being considered for re-activation in order to detect asteroids that could potentially collide with the earth.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope, which was launched in December 2009, has been in hibernation since February 2011 after taking pictures for an all-sky map for about a year, Reuters reported.

NASA scientists were able to view in great detail far away, relatively dim objects that are often concealed by layers of dust, such as brown dwarf stars, courtesy of the telescope’s infrared detectors.

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In addition to its photo capabilities, the WISE telescope was also tasked with searching for comets and asteroids in our solar system, with a specific focus on those space rocks that passed close to the earth.

During its one-year mission, the WISE telescope located approximately 150 near-Earth asteroids, of which 20 were deemed potentially hazardous, before funding for the project ran out, Reuters notes.

The U.S. space agency is now considering restarting it in order to enhance its asteroid-hunting effort after a small asteroid exploded over the skies of Russia in February, injuring some 1,500-plus in the process through falling debris.

On the same day in February, a significantly larger asteroid, large enough to destroy a major U.S. city, made a near-Earth passage. The larger asteroid, known as 2012 DA14, had a 148-foot diameter with the mass equivalent of a cruise ship, and passed the earth’s surface at a distance of about 17,000 miles, which is 5,000 miles below the altitude that most major weather and communications satellites operate.

Those events, as well as numerous other reports of near-earth asteroid making headlines over the past year, prompted congressional hearings and led to fresh calls for NASA and other agencies to step up asteroid detection initiatives, Reuters reported.

The consideration to reactive the WISE telescope was announced earlier this week by NASA’s Lindley Johnson, who oversees the agency's Near-Earth Objects observations program, Reuters reported.

"If an object of that size were to impact the Earth, it would have global consequences," Lindley said during a NASA advisory committee meeting in Washington. "One as much as 100 meters (328 feet) in size would have regional effects and could cause a great many casualties."

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The space agency claims to have already located approximately 95 percent of the asteroids that are .62 miles or larger in diameter.

How much the WISE reactivation operation would cost was not released, however Johnson tells Reuters the operation could be fully funded within the program's current $20 million annual budget.

Related stories:

NASA: 'Pray' if Asteroid Heads Our Way Because No Defense Yet

Collision Course for Catastrophe

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