Asteroid hunter space telescope gets two more years as detective

NEOWISE is the asteroid hunter space satellite that found the famous comet by the same name last summer that kept pandemic-baffled starwatchers busy at night. It will continue its mission another two years. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As Congress considers ways to study UFOs, otherwise known as Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (UAP), NASA already has a space telescope aloft hunting for asteroids and comets, including objects that could plunge to Earth and destroy entire cities.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) has already provided estimates of the size of more than 1,850 near-Earth objects and will continue its work for two more years, under a new mission extension.

In addition to finding potential hazards, NASA is also studying asteroids to learn how the solar system was formed. NEOWISE is actually an updated mission for the space telescope launched in 2009 as WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer).  WISE depleted its cryogenic coolant and was put into hibernation in 2011, then observations resumed in 2013 by NASA’s Planetary Science Division as NEOWISE.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said ground-based telescopes have worked in finding 26,000 near-Earth asteroids “but there are many more to be found.” After NEOWISE, a more capable NEO Surveyor on a future mission will find more unknown asteroids more quickly and identify potentially-hazardous asteroids and comets “before they are a threat to us here on Earth,” he added in a blog issued by Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

 NEO Surveyor is scheduled to launch in 2026.

Asteroids are heated by the Sun and warm up and release heat as infrared radiation, which is studied for the object’s size and makeup.

In addition to the estimates of size for 1,850 NEOs, the mission has made 1.1 million confirmed infrared observations of about 39,000 objects throughout the solar system since 2013. Mission data is freely shared by the IPAC/Caltech led archive.

NEOWISE also famously discovered Comet Neowise that attracted global attention last summer. It is depicted in this photo shot in Tucson above the northeast horizon just before sunrise on July 6, 2020:

neowise comet from tucson 2020
Credit: Vishnu Reddy

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence delivered a report to Congress on June 25 from the UAP Task Force that said 144 government reports of UAPs were “largely inconclusive” because of a limited amount of data which “hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature of UAP.”

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