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WISE Eye Spies Near-Earth Asteroid

January 25, 2010

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has spotted its
first never-before-seen near-Earth asteroid, the first of hundreds it
is expected to find during its mission to map the whole sky in
infrared light. There is no danger of the newly discovered asteroid
hitting Earth.

The near-Earth object, designated 2010 AB78, was discovered by WISE
Jan. 12. The mission’s sophisticated software picked out the moving
object against a background of stationary stars. As WISE circled
Earth, scanning the sky above, it observed the asteroid several times
during a period of one-and-a-half days before the object moved beyond
its view. Researchers then used the University of Hawaii’s 2.2-meter
(88-inch) visible-light telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea to
follow up and confirm the discovery.

The asteroid is currently about 158 million kilometers (98 million
miles) from Earth. It is estimated to be roughly 1 kilometer (0.6
mile) in diameter and circles the Sun in an elliptical orbit tilted to
the plane of our solar system. The object comes as close to the Sun as
Earth, but because of its tilted orbit, it will not pass very close to
Earth for many centuries. This asteroid does not pose any foreseeable
impact threat to Earth, but scientists will continue to monitor it.

Near-Earth objects are asteroids and comets with orbits that pass
relatively close to Earth’s path around the Sun. In extremely rare
cases of an impact, the objects may cause damage to Earth’s surface.
An asteroid about 10 kilometers (6 miles) wide is thought to have
plunged into our planet 65 million years ago, triggering a global
disaster and killing off the dinosaurs.

Additional asteroid and comet detections will continue to come from
WISE. The observations will be automatically sent to the clearinghouse
for solar system bodies, the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass.,
for comparison against the known catalog of solar system objects. A
community of professional and amateur astronomers will provide
follow-up observations, establishing firm orbits for the previously
unseen objects.

“This is just the beginning,” said Ned Wright, the mission’s principal
investigator from UCLA. “We’ve got a fire hose of data pouring down
from space.”

On Jan. 14, the WISE mission began its official survey of the entire
sky in infrared light, one month after it rocketed into a polar orbit
around Earth from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. By casting
a wide net, the mission will catch all sorts of cosmic objects, from
asteroids in our own solar system to galaxies billions of light-years
away. Its data will serve as a cosmic treasure map, pointing
astronomers and telescopes, such as NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and
the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, to the most interesting
finds.

WISE is expected to find about 100,000 previously unknown asteroids in
our main asteroid belt, a rocky ring of debris between the orbits of
Mars and Jupiter. It will also spot hundreds of previously unseen
near-Earth objects.

By observing infrared light, WISE will reveal the darkest members of
the near-Earth object population -- those that don’t reflect much
visible light. The mission will contribute important information about
asteroid and comet sizes. Visible-light estimates of an asteroid’s
size can be deceiving, because a small, light-colored space rock can
look the same as a big, dark one. In infrared, however, a big dark
rock will give off more of a thermal, or infrared glow, and reveal its
true size. This size information will give researchers a better
estimate of how often Earth can expect potentially devastating
impacts.

“We are thrilled to have found our first new near-Earth object,” said
Amy Mainzer of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Mainzer is the principal investigator of NEOWISE, a program to mine
the collected WISE data for new solar system objects. “Many programs
are searching for near-Earth objects using visible light, but some
asteroids are dark, like pavement, and don’t reflect a lot of
sunlight. But like a parking lot, the dark objects heat up and emit
infrared light that WISE can see.”

“It is great to receive the first of many anticipated near-Earth
object discoveries by the WISE system,” said Don Yeomans, manager of
NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL. “Analysis of the WISE
data will go a long way toward understanding the true nature of this
population.”

JPL manages the WISE mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate,
Washington. The principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The
mission was competitively selected under NASA’s Explorers Program
managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science
instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah,
and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.,
Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at
the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California
Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. The
ground-based observations are partly supported by the National Science
Foundation.

 

 

 

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