Mothballed NASA Telescope to Hunt for Asteroids

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NASA is bringing an infrared space telescope out of retirement to join the hunt for asteroids.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE telescope, has been mothballed for 2.5 years. It spent 13 months making an all-sky map of comets, asteroids, stars and other objects that emit relatively cool, infrared light, compared to visible wavelengths.

As part of that survey, WISE hunted for asteroids in orbits that pass relatively close to Earth.

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NASA now plans to bring WISE out of hibernation for a three-year stint hunting asteroids that may be on a collision course with Earth.

The U.S. space agency also is looking for non-threatening asteroids to serve as targets for a robotic mission that would relocate all or part of an asteroid into a safe, stable orbit around the moon.

In addition to demonstrating technologies that may one day be needed to redirect a potentially threatening asteroids, the mission, which is in the planning stages, would give NASA’s human space flight program a destination for an early test flight of its deep-space Orion capsule.

NASA is working on Orion, as well as a heavy-lift booster called the Space Launch System, to fly astronauts beyond the 250-mile orbit of the International Space Station.

WISE’s retirement is due to end next month.

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“After a quick checkout, we’re going to hit the ground running,”  WISE astronomer Amy Mainzer, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement.

During its prime mission, WISE found 135 near-Earth objects. NASA hopes to more than double that number during the  follow-on mission, as well as assess 2,000 other asteroids that could be targets for the new exploration initiative.

Image: This artist’s concept shows the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE spacecraft, in its orbit around Earth. In September of 2013, engineers will attempt to bring the mission out of hibernation to hunt for more asteroids and comets in a project called NEOWISE. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech