NASA finally becomes serious about a major threat to life on Earth.
Administrators announced Monday that the agency plans to launch a space telescope to monitor dangerous asteroids as part of its planetary defense strategy.
The telescope will use infrared radiation to detect the heat of rocks entering space. For now, NASA administrators call it the Earth Observation Mission (NEOSM).
"This is a great step forward in thinking about human fate because dinosaurs certainly did not have an asteroid research program to protect themselves," Richard Binzel, an asteroid researcher and professor of planetary science, told Business Insider MIT. "Knowing what's out there is something the planetary scientific community has been advocating for nearly 30 years. So it's a breakthrough for decades."
The new NASA mission is expected to cost between $ 500 million and $ 600 million. It may start as early as 2025, but it is not an official timeline.
"We are finally in a state where we can say that we are ready to move forward," said Laurie Glas, director of the agency's Planetary Sciences Division, at a NASA committee meeting. "It's really a big deal that we're in this moment."
"Protecting the planet is something we have to deal with"
Any space rock with an orbit that takes it within 125 million miles (200 million kilometers) from the Sun is considered NEO (near Earth). So far, humanity has deployed around 15,500 such sites.
The purpose of observing NEOs is to avoid surprise, much like dinosaurs were acquired 65 million years ago, when a 6-mile-wide asteroid collided with the earth. The impact triggered a high-mile tsunami, ignited forest fires and dumped billions of tons of sulfur into the atmosphere, wiping out the sun for years. It was the end of the Great Lizards era.
But so far, scientists have missed many large, dangerous objects that have come close to Earth. In 2013, a 20-meter (65-foot-diameter) meteor that travels at 40,000 mph enters the atmosphere and explodes over Chelyabinsk in central Russia. The blast sent a shockwave that broke windows and damaged buildings across the region, injuring more than 1,400 people.
According to NASA modeling, an event such as the Chelyabinsk meteor occurs every 60 years. The same day another, larger asteroid came 17,000 miles from Earth.
"Space reminds us from time to time that yes, on a historical timeline, a geologic timeline for sure, defense on the planet is something that has to be "We do," said Thomas Zurbbuchen, an associate administrator at NASA, at the committee meeting.
Space sent us another similar reminder in July, when a 427-foot asteroid "urban killer" flew within 45,000 miles of Earth.
NASA had almost no warning about this scale, because at the moment the only way scientists can tracking the NEO is by pointing the telescope to the right place at the right time. The telescopes detect the sunlight reflected by the asteroids, but the smaller the asteroid, the lower the reflection; plus, some asteroids are simply not very reflective.  "Luck is not a plan and so far we have counted on luck," Binzel said.
NASA hopes to solve this problem with the NEOSM telescope. The agency has not yet released design plans or an official timetable for the project, but has said it will use previous plans for a similar mission called NEOCam, which has never received full funding. The NEOCam telescope would circumnavigate the Earth and scan the sky for NEOs larger than 140 meters (460 feet) large enough to cause regional damage if the object collides on Earth.
Similarly, the plan for a new asteroid hunting telescope requires thermosensitive infrared sensors capable of detecting even the darkest asteroids that are most difficult to find. (Because cosmic rocks are warmed by the sun, they emit infrared light even when they are too dark to see terrestrial telescopes.) Infrared sensors will also allow the telescope to measure the shape, size, composition and orbit of incoming objects.
NASA's 8-year Wide Area Infrared Telescope (WISE) uses a similar infrared monitoring approach to detect at least 230 NEOs.
However, WISE is less powerful than NEOCam, has less field of view and relies on an older camera that requires cryogenic cooling. Plus, WISE is not just designed for asteroid hunting. Its main mission, which it fulfilled in 2011, was to depict the entire sky twice, detailing distant galaxies, stars and asteroids.
"A Great Leap Forward"
In 2005, Congress forced NASA to track 90% of Earth's asteroids with a width of 140 meters or more by 2020. However, as of December, less than a third of these NEOs have been found by Earth and space telescopes.
The NEOCam proposal was presented in 2006, then again in 2010. NASA selected the 2010 technology development proposal, but chose to fund other startup projects when it came time to select new missions in 2017
"This impasse between NASA and Congress just happened about how to do it and how to pay for it, and what happened today was a huge step forward," Binzel said.  Infrared camera sensor for the proposed NEOCam Asteroid Hunting Mission. Teledyne
 He added that the new telescope "sounds like a NEOCam by any means except the name."
But there is one key difference: the new telescope will use a new team of scientists.
"It's good to move it forward. but when you start changing the team up, it creates additional risk, "Mark Sykes, director of the Institute for Planetary Sciences and a scientist at NEOCam, told Business Insider. "This only increases the likelihood that the best decisions will not be made. This can influence how well the mission works and what we can extract from it."
Zurbuchen said the project would still involve the NEOCam team. And finally, the solution is a step toward deriving the orbit of a telescope asteroid.
"This is the first time NASA has committed to space exploration for asteroids," Binzel said. "They always said 'we will study it, we will study it' and now they say 'we will do it'.
Dave Mosher contributed to the reporting of this story.