NASA to build telescope for detecting asteroids that threaten Earth

Science | AAAS | 9/23/2019 | Staff
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NASA is moving forward with plans to launch an infrared telescope that could detect asteroids on a collision course with Earth. Its launch could come by the middle of the next decade, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington, D.C., said today at a meeting of an agency advisory panel.

The telescope, which will cost $500 million to $600 million, grows out of long-gestating plans for the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam), first proposed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, nearly 15 years ago. Such a scope is essential for meeting a congressional requirement that NASA detect 90% of all potentially hazardous asteroids and comets of at least 140 meters in diameter by the end of 2020. The telescope will likely end up with a different name, but the mission is the same, says Mark Sykes, CEO of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, and a member of NEOCam’s science team. “There is no independent or new spacecraft or operational design here. This mission is NEOCam.”

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Although NASA will not meet Congress’s deadline—which wasn’t attached to any funding—a combination of an infrared telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a ground-based facility being built in Chile, will eventually make it a reality, the National Academies of of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C., said this summer in a report. A telescope operating in the infrared spectrum is essential, researchers say, as the past decade has shown that dark asteroids, which are nearly invisible in visible light but stand out in infrared, are more abundant than once thought. “There are a lot of really dark asteroids out there,” says Jay Melosh, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and an author of the report. “That pushes the need for the infrared system.”

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