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Asteroid Tracking System Funded By NASA Almost Ready

Apr 16, 2013 01:15 PM EDT
The Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) is a mission proposed to NASA to find potentially hazardous asteroids. The mission will use a new sensor, called the NEOCam chip, that has more pixels and better sensitivity than previous generations of infrared sensors. Made of mercury, cadmium and tellurium, the new chip is about the size of a postage stamp and is optimized for detecting the faint heat emitted by asteroids circling the Sun. The NEOCam chip is the first megapixel sensor capable of detecting infrared wavelengths at temperatures achievable in deep space without refrigerators or cryogens.
(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/Teledyne)

NASA's latest infrared sensor designed to locate near-Earth objects passed a critical design test, according to a press release issued by the U.S. agency on Tuesday.

"This sensor represents one of many investments made by NASA's Discovery Program and its Astrophysics Research and Analysis Program in innovation technologies to significantly improve the future missions designed to protect Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids," said Lindly Johnson, program executive for NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office in Washington.

Once launched, scientists hope the sensor called NEOCam will aid scientists in finding and capturing an asteroid to relocate closer to Earth in order to run experiments that hopefully will help researchers better understand how to face any future extra-terrestrial threats.

Near-Earth objects includes asteroids and comets with orbits that come within 28 million miles of the Earth's path.

Because asteroids do no emit visible light, optical telescopes are impractical for determining their size. For this reason, the group has resorted to using infrared technology.

"Infrared sensors are a powerful tool for discovering, cataloging and understanding the asteroid population," said Amy Mainzer, a principal investigator for NASA's NEOWISE mission. "When you observe a space rock with infrared, you are seeing its thermal emissions, which can better define the asteroid's size, as well as tell you something about composition."

The sensor itself represents the culmination of 10 years of scientific collaboration between Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Rochester and Teledyne Imaging Sensors.

"We were delighted to see in this generation of detectors a vast improvement in sensitivity compared with previous generations," said Craig McMurty of the University of Rochester.

NEOWISE is an enhancement of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), which scanned the sky in infrared light twice. In so doing it captured more than 2.7 million images of objects in space, including faraway galaxies, asteroids and comets.

Once launched, NEOCam will be four times the distance between the Earth and moon where it can get to work without the impediments of cloud cover and daylight.

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