NASA Mulls Waking Space Telescope for Asteroid Hunt

NASA may wake the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope from a two-year hibernation to resume its NEOWISE asteroid hunting mission for another three years, the head of the agency’s Near-Earth Object Observation Program said here on July 29.

WISE launched in December 2009 and scanned for faraway comets, asteroids and galaxies for about 10 months before it depleted its hydrogen coolant in October 2010, rendering two of its four infrared detectors unusable. Rather than shut the telescope down right away, NASA approved the NEOWISE extended mission, which kept the observatory operating for another four months looking for asteroids in our solar system.

Now, NASA’s Planetary Science Division is hoping for a much longer extension, which might be affordable even if Congress does not double the Near-Earth Object Observation Program’s $20 million budget in 2014, as the Obama administration requested in April.

“I can afford it at $20 million, and certainly at $40 million,” Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Near-Earth Object Observation Program, told members of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee at NASA headquarters here.

A second extension would focus on near-Earth object (NEO) detection and characterization – the determination of an asteroid’s size, composition and orbital peculiarities. WISE, a $320 million observatory built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., around an infrared telescope supplied by Space Dynamics Laboratory of Logan, Utah, detected more than 30,000 asteroids during the four-month NEOWISE phase.

Johnson has mentioned the idea of a WISE restart before, most recently during the Small Bodies Assessment Group and the Ball-hosted Target NEO-2 workshop, both of which took place here in early July. At the Small Bodies meeting, Johnson spoke for the group in urging a WISE restart, noting that “some urgency” was required. By 2017, Johnson said, the telescope’s sun-synchronous Earth orbit will decay past the point of being useful for asteroid spotting. NASA, in its official response to the recommendation, said it would consider a restart, provided funding was available.

Although Johnson told the National Advisory Council July 29 that funding should indeed be available, he was short on specifics, and would not say what a NEOWISE restart and three years of operations would cost.

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