NASA’s Asteroid Hunter Has Its First Target

NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), finding space rocks since 2010.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Jan. 7, 2014, 9:55 a.m.

NASA’s as­ter­oid-hunt­ing ship came out of hi­berna­tion last month, and it has already spot­ted its first space rock.

The as­ter­oid — 2013 YP139 — lacks a catchy name, but it’s a mark­er of pro­gress in NASA’s mis­sion to loc­ate, land on, and reroute an as­ter­oid by 2025.

Its spot­ter, a space­craft known as NEO­WISE, emerged from two years of dormancy in Decem­ber to con­tin­ue search­ing the sky for po­ten­tial tar­gets. It found 34,000 as­ter­oids in its first run, so the latest find should be the first of many more dis­cov­er­ies.

A few facts about 2013 YP139:

  • It’s cur­rently 27 mil­lion miles from Earth, but could come with­in 300,000 miles of our plan­et’s or­bit — nearly as close as the moon — mak­ing it a po­ten­tially haz­ard­ous as­ter­oid.

  • Sci­ent­ists es­tim­ate its dia­met­er at .4 miles. By com­par­is­on, the met­eor that streaked over Rus­sia last year, ex­plod­ing with the force of 20 atom­ic bombs, in­jur­ing 1,500 people, and dam­aging thou­sands of build­ings, meas­ured only about 65 feet. NASA says im­pact by an as­ter­oid big­ger than a half-mile in dia­met­er would have “world­wide ef­fects.”

  • It’s as dark as a piece of coal, but gives off high amounts of in­frared light.

  • The as­ter­oid — un­like the su­per-hot stars that provide its back­drop — is close to room tem­per­at­ure.

Sep­ar­ately, NASA also an­nounced Tues­day that it has found the first as­ter­oid of 2014 to reach plan­et Earth: a 6-to-9-foot rock that entered the at­mo­sphere on New Year’s Day be­fore it broke up over the At­lantic Ocean.