Spaceflight Insider

New asteroid spotted by reactivated NASA spacecraft

The six red dots in this composite picture indicate the location of the first new near-Earth asteroid seen by NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE). Photo Credit: NASA

On December 29 2013, NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft, which came out of hibernation in September of last year, has detected a never-before-seen asteroid. The moving, near-Earth asteroid, designated 2013 YP139, was spotted by sophisticated software which stood out against a background of stationary stars.

This new asteroid was observed several times over half a day before moving beyond NEOWISE’s view. The discovery was confirmed by researchers at the University of Arizona using the Spacewatch telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory southwest of Tucson to confirm the asteroid’s discovery.

“NEOWISE originally was called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), which had made the most comprehensive survey to date of asteroids and comets. The spacecraft was shut down in 2011 after its primary mission was completed. But in September 2013, it was reactivated, renamed and given a new mission, which is to assist NASA’s efforts to identify the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs). NEOWISE also can assist in characterizing previously detected asteroids that could be considered potential targets for future exploration missions,” stated a NASA release.

At Vandenberg Air Force Base's Astrotech processing facility in California, NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, spacecraft is situated on a work stand. At right is the fixed panel solar array. Phto Credit: NASA/Moore, VAFB

At Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Astrotech processing facility in California, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, spacecraft is situated on a work stand. At right is the fixed panel solar array. Photo Credit: NASA / Moore, VAFB

According to the WISE mission site, “WISE is an unmanned satellite carrying an infrared-sensitive telescope that will image the entire sky. Since objects around room temperature emit infrared radiation, the WISE telescope and detectors are kept very cold (below -430° F /15 Kelvins, which is only 15° Centigrade above absolute zero) by a cryostat — like an ice chest but filled with solid hydrogen instead of ice.”

The solid hydrogen inside the spacecraft has since been depleted, but it is still able to carry out its new mission of detecting asteroids. NEOWISE will continue operating at its two shortest infrared wavelengths to deliver valuable data the numbers, orbits, sizes, and compositions of asteroids and comets, according to the NEOWISE Project website.

The NASA release also stated that: “2013 YP139 is about 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) from Earth. Based on its infrared brightness, scientists estimate it to be roughly 0.4 miles (650 meters) in diameter and extremely dark, like a piece of coal. The asteroid circles the sun in an elliptical orbit tilted to the plane of our solar system and is classified as potentially hazardous. It is possible for its orbit to bring it as close as 300,000 miles from Earth, a little more than the distance to the moon. However, it will not come that close within the next century.”

Future observations by NEOWISE will be automatically sent to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts to be compared with the known catalog of solar system objects to determine whether or not the object is in fact unknown. Claims are double checked further by professional and amateur astronomers with follow-up observations. The asteroid 2013 YP139 is expected to be the first of hundreds of discoveries for the renewed NEOWISE spacecraft, some of which could be potential candidates for NASA’s announced mission to sending humans to an asteroid by 2025.

 

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Britt Rawcliffe is a professional freelance aerospace and aviation photographer based out of Pennsylvania with over six years of professional photographic experience. Her creative imagery has spanned into all areas relating to space, including launches, photojournalism, architecture, and portraiture. Britt’s passion for history has been a common thread in much of her work, including having photographed many Moonwalkers such as Buzz Aldrin and Gene Cernan.

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