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NASA builds telescope to detect asteroids threatening Earth | science



NASA is moving forward with plans to launch an infrared telescope that can detect asteroids when it collides with Earth. Its launch could be by the middle of the next decade, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science in Washington, D.C., at a meeting of the agency's advisory board.

The telescope, which will cost from $ 500 million to $ 600 million, stems from the long-gestating plans for the Earth Object Camera (NEOCam), first proposed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, nearly 1

5 years ago. . Such a range is essential to meeting NASA's congressional requirement to detect 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 end with another name, but the mission is the same, he says Mark Sykes, CEO 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 will not comply with the Congressional term – unrelated to any funding – a combination of an infrared telescope and a large synoptic telescope, a ground-based facility built in Chile will eventually become a reality, they said this summer in a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine in Washington, DC. The telescope operating in the infrared spectrum is essential, according to researchers, since the past decade has shown that dark asteroids, which are almost invisible in visible light but prominent in the infrared spectrum, are more abundant than ever thought . "There are a lot of really dark asteroids out there," says Jay Melosh, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of the report. "This pushes the need for an infrared system."

However, building an infrared telescope may require a $ 150 million increase in NASA's annual planetary defense budget. Most of that money now goes to the Double Asteroid Redirection Mission (DART) built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Set to launch in 2021, DART is trying to see if it is possible to divert the asteroid path. It is unclear whether commissioners in Congress should follow NASA's guidance and also fund the new infrared telescope.

The mission also notes, perhaps, the first time that NASA has adopted a mission proposal developed by an external group for one of its competing science programs and proposed to fulfill it. internally, Sykes says. This move may rework the role of Amy Mainzer, an astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who has been running NEOCam since it was first proposed, and her research team. Mainzer, who recently moved from JPL to the University's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, would serve as the principal investigator on the mission.

"I hear [today’s news] at the same time as everyone else," says Mainzer, who serves on the NASA Planetary Research Advisory Board, which is meeting today in Washington, DC. "It sounds like NASA is interested in pursuing what I think is great. … This is a problem worth solving. "The role she and her university will play has not yet been developed.

For the past 15 years, with NASA's support, Mainzer's team has refined the electronics and sensors that will power the telescope. Unlike the previous Infrared Telescope, the WISE, NEOCam sensors will be able to operate without active cooling when parked on L1, a stable leveling zone balanced between Earth's gravity and the sun. Meanwhile, engineers have drastically lowered the "dark currents" of their detectors, a false noise that occurs when detectors operate even under black-and-tight conditions.

Not everyone is a fan of NEOCam plans. Nathan Myrvold, a billionaire technology billionaire and former head of Microsoft technology at Bellevue, Washington, has broken down among statistics used by Mainzer and others to generate asteroid diameters from WISE observations. The congressional mandate adopted in 2005, which NEOCam is intended to address, also seems increasingly irrelevant. One change is that researchers now believe that asteroids smaller than 140 meters in diameter also pose potentially serious threats to Earth, in part because they could generate tsunami damage. "The goal defined by [by Congress] is not a threshold that is a success, if you fail it if you don't," says Alan Harris, a planetary scientist at MoreData in La Canada, California. "It's just a casual landmark in the playing field."

NASA's decision to chase the telescope comes after a disturbing episode this summer, reported earlier this month by BuzzFeed. The agency and terrestrial telescopes have failed to identify until recently a slow-moving asteroid with a football field called 2019 OK, only 65,000 kilometers from Earth. It is unclear whether NEOCam would detect this asteroid, although it is also expected to investigate asteroids below the 140-meter threshold.

It's good for NASA to move the telescope out of its science funding portfolio, Harris adds, Planetary scientists doubt that NEOCam will provide important new research, a suspicion that will probably derail it in past competitions. However, this does not make receiving this information any less useful to the public, Melos says. "This is something we really need to do," he says. "This may not be the absolute best science, but there is more to life than scientific knowledge."

This is an evolving story.


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