NASA asteroid WARNING: Agency in rush to launch asteroid-detecting space camera

Astrophysicists are used to working with unimaginable time scales due to the universe’s apparently infinite size. But there is a growing sense of urgency among NASA scientists wanting to ready a next-generation space telescope. For the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) will watch out for any asteroids on a catastrophic collision course for Earth.

One thing is for certain – it is a question of when, not if an asteroid will hit Earth.

“The question is, when is the next one going to happen on a human time scale as well as a geological time scale?” asks Amy Mainzer, a at CalTech Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist and NEOCam project team leader.

NASA has already cataloged all the near-Earth asteroids larger than 0.6 miles (1 km) across and a law was recently passed requiring NASA to find 90 percent of asteroids larger than 140 meters (460 ft) in diameter by 2020.

But the US space agency has admitted it will miss this deadline, claiming although 8,000 asteroids have been detected, experts expect twice as many are still undiscovered.

And if even one of those unknown asteroids is a danger to life on Earth, sending a spacecraft to intercept it would require a 10-year warning.

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There still isn’t a plan to meet the Congressional mandate, with NASA waiting for a report outlining the best methods of find near-Earth objects, expected sometime this spring, before it makes a decision on NEOCam.

Professor Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology said: “I don’t lose sleep over the risk of an undiscovered asteroid impacting the Earth because the chances are small, but they are not zero.

“We have the capability, the adult responsibility, to simply know what’s out there. And NEOCam is basically ready to go.”

Another space probe called IMAP will launch in 2024 to study solar wind, heading for an orbit that is also ideal for NEOCam.

There is room on its rocket for one more payload, and asteroid researchers say this is the best opportunity to launch NEOCam.

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But NASA scientists will require urgent approval and funding in order to prepare the telescope in time.

Another important source of near-Earth asteroid data will be the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).

By 2023, the telescope will begin a 10-year survey repeatedly capturing wide-scale images of the night sky.

And NASA researchers believe the LSST could collect enough information to find about 75 percent of near-Earth objects as small as 140 meters across.

However, to reach the 90 percent target requires space-based infrared observations, which NEOCam is designed to collect.

Only infrared observations are able to estimate the size of an asteroid.

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At visual wavelengths, astronomers have a hard time distinguishing between large, dark objects and small, bright ones, but infrared data can be used to solve that problem.

Professor Binzel said: “I don’t think anyone appreciates how hectic the early part of the LSST Survey will be, when we begin to see everything that is out there.

”A 10 metre object passes inside the Moon’s orbit every week – and we will start seeing years and years-worth of these ‘incoming’ objects well in advance of their close approach.

“The early orbit solutions won’t be able to distinguish ‘hit or miss.’

“We will need to concentrate our attention on the largest objects in that incoming flux—and we need the infrared characterisation to sort that out.”

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