NASA’s ‘Asteroid Hunter’ Is Back in Action

In this concept image, an astronaut studies an asteroid trapped in a capture bag.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Dec. 20, 2013, midnight

You can have the moon, China. Leave the as­ter­oid re-rout­ing to us.

NASA’s as­ter­oid hunter is back in ac­tion, and it’s look­ing for a rock where we can land hu­mans next dec­ade. The agency calls its plan — on pace for 2025 — “the first mis­sion to identi­fy, cap­ture, and re­lo­cate an as­ter­oid.”

In less than two years of op­er­a­tion, NEO­WISE (Near-Earth Ob­ject Wide-field In­frared Sur­vey Ex­plorer) dis­covered more than 34,000 as­ter­oids as part of its ini­tial mis­sion. Now, after two-plus years of hi­berna­tion, the ship is on the job again.

“Over the next weeks and months we will be gear­ing up our ground-based data pro­cessing and ex­pect to get back in­to the as­ter­oid-hunt­ing busi­ness, and ac­quire our first pre­vi­ously un­dis­covered space rock, in the next few months,” said the agency’s Amy Main­zer.

NASA re­leased im­ages taken by the craft this week, call­ing them just as good as the ones taken dur­ing its 2010-11 run. The ship uses a 16-inch tele­scope and in­frared cam­er­as to find as­ter­oids that come with­in 28 mil­lion miles of Earth. Dur­ing its earli­er mis­sion (when it was known as WISE), it tracked the en­tire sky. Now, it’s fo­cused on close-by ob­jects to “pro­tect our home plan­et.”

Right now, the plan is to use a cap­ture bag — which looks like a gi­ant para­chute — to en­gulf an as­ter­oid and al­low as­tro­nauts to study it. NASA plans to pull the rock in­to a stable or­bit after nab­bing it.

Back on the ground, NASA en­gin­eers are test­ing suits for as­tro­nauts to use to ex­plore the cap­tured as­ter­oid. The suits are be­ing tweaked to work with the Or­i­on space­craft and im­prove mo­bil­ity for space­walks. One pro­to­type is a mod­i­fied ver­sion of NASA’s “pump­kin suit.”

If NEO­WISE sends back pic­tures any­thing like the ones it caught in its first run, it will be worth keep­ing an eye on. Here’s a dy­ing star sur­roun­ded by tracks of as­ter­oids.

The pro­ject isn’t without con­tro­versy. Earli­er this year, House Re­pub­lic­ans on the Sci­ence Com­mit­tee tried to scrap the mis­sion as part of a plan to cut NASA spend­ing and re­turn the fo­cus to moon mis­sions. The Sen­ate, however, passed a NASA spend­ing bill with high­er levels and no dir­ec­tion to end the as­ter­oid pro­gram. Con­gress has yet to re­solve its fi­nal plan for the agency.

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