NASA is moving ahead with plans to launch an infrared telescope that can detect asteroids on a collision course with the Earth. The launch could come midway through the next decade, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate science administrator in Washington, D.C., today during a meeting of an agency advisory panel.
The Near-Earth object monitoring mission, which costs $ 500 to $ 600 million, is a result of long-term pregnancy plans for the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam), first proposed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, for nearly 15 years ago. Such a scope is important to meet a congress requirement that NASA detects 90% of all potentially dangerous asteroids and comets with a diameter of at least 140 meters by the end of 2020.
The telescope is likely to be renamed, but the mission is the same, said Mark Sykes, executive director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, and a member of the NEOCam science team. “There is no independent or new spacecraft or operational design here. This mission is NEOCam. “
Although NASA does not meet congress periods – which were not linked to any funding – a combination of an infrared telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a land-based facility built in Chile, will ultimately make it a reality, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in Washington, DC, said in a report this summer.
A telescope that works within the infrared spectrum is important, researchers say, because the last decade has shown that dark asteroids, which are almost invisible in visible light but stand out in infrared, are more abundant than ever thought. “There are many really dark asteroids out there,” said Jay Melosh, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of the report. “It insists on the need for the infrared system.”
However, building the infrared telescope may require an increase in NASA’s annual budget of $ 150 million for planetary defense. The bulk of that money now goes to the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission, built by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland. DART is launched in 2021 and is trying to test whether it is possible to redirect the path to an asteroid. It is unclear whether conference credits will follow NASA’s leadership and also fund the new infrared telescope.
The mission may also be the first time NASA has adopted a mission proposal developed by an external group for one of its competing science programs and proposed to implement it internally, Sykes said. The move could rework the role of Amy Mainzer, an astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who has led NEOCam since it was first introduced, and her science team. Mainzer, who recently moved from JPL to the University’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, is said to have served as the principal investigator of the mission.
“I hear [today’s news] simultaneously with everyone,” says Mainzer, who is a member of NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee, which is meeting today in Washington, DC. “It seems that NASA is interested in this, which I think is great. … It is a problem that is worth solving.” However, the role that she and her university will play has not yet been worked out.
For the past 15 years, Mainzer’s team, with support from NASA, has refined the electronics and sensors that will power the telescope. Unlike a predecessor infrared telescope, Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), NEOCam sensors may work without active cooling when parked on L1, a stable vantage point in the balance between earth’s gravity and the sun. In the meantime, engineers have drastically reduced the “dark currents” of the detectors, creepy noise that occurs when the detectors are operated, even under black conditions.
Not everyone is in favor of the NEOCam plans. Nathan Myhrvold, a billionaire technologist, and former Microsoft technology manager in Bellevue, Washington, has misrepresented the statistics that Mainzer and others use to generate asteroid diameters from observations of the WISE instrument, among other things. The congress mandate that was adopted in 2005 and that NEOCam was designed to solve is also increasingly irrelevant.
A change is that scientists now believe that asteroids with a diameter of fewer than 140 meters also pose potentially serious threats to the Earth, partly because they can generate harmful tsunamis. “The goal as defined by Congress does not represent any threshold that equals success if you achieve it or failure if you don’t,” said Alan Harris, a planetary scientist at MoreData in La Canada, California. “It’s just a random benchmark on the playing field.”
NASA’s decision to pursue the telescope comes after an embarrassing episode this summer, reported earlier this month by BuzzFeed. The desk and terrestrial telescopes were only able to identify a slow-moving asteroid the size of a soccer field, called 2019 OK, that only passed 65,000 kilometers from the earth. It is unclear whether NEOCam would also have discovered the asteroid, although it is expected that asteroids below the 140-meter threshold will also be studied.
Harris is moving the telescope out of his science finance portfolio. Planetary scientists have doubted that NEOCam would provide important new research, a suspicion that it would probably have derailed in previous competitions. However, it makes it no less worthwhile for the community, says Melosh. “It is something that we really need,” he says. “It may not be the best science, but there is more to life than scientific knowledge.”
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