NASA's next-generation asteroid hunter is now under construction, NASA announce

According to a NASA press release, construction has now officially begun on its next-generation asteroid hunting platform called NEOWISE.
Christopher McFadden
NASA’s NEO Surveyor.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona  

NASA's Near-Earth Object Surveyor (NEO Surveyor), a space observatory built to look for the hardest-to-find asteroids and comets that wander into Earth's orbital neighborhood, recently passed a rigorous technical and programmatic evaluation, NASA reports. The mission is moving into the final design and production phase, and the baseline for its technical, financial, and time requirements is being made.

The observatory helps the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) in Washington, DC, reach its goals. The NASA Authorization Act of 2005 mandated that at least 90% of the near-Earth objects larger than 140 meters (460 feet) in diameter that passes within 30 million miles (48 million kilometers) of our planet's orbit be characterized.

If they strike the Earth, objects of this size have the potential to cause severe regional devastation, if not worse, as we've seen from our planet's long history.

“NEO Surveyor represents the next generation for NASA’s ability to quickly detect, track, and characterize potentially hazardous near-Earth objects,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer at PDCO. “Ground-based telescopes remain essential for us to continually watch the skies, but a space-based infrared observatory is the ultimate high ground that will enable NASA’s planetary defense strategy.”

NEO Surveyor, operated by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, will travel a million miles to the L1 Lagrange point, an area of gravitational stability between Earth and the Sun, where it will orbit for its five-year primary mission.

The NEO Surveyor will observe the solar system from this location using infrared light, which is not visible to the human eye. Larger ground-based observatories may miss near-Earth objects that this space telescope can see by employing its modest light-collecting aperture of almost 20 inches (50 centimeters), since those wavelengths are primarily blocked by Earth's atmosphere.

The most difficult-to-find near-Earth objects, such as dark asteroids and comets that don't reflect much visible light, can be tracked with NEO Surveyor's cutting-edge detectors, which are built to observe two heat-sensitive infrared bands. These objects glow because sunlight has heated them, and NEO Surveyor is sensitive to infrared wavelengths.

The NEO surveyor is a vital part of helping keep Earth safe from NEOs

The NEO Surveyor will also be able to find Earth's Trojan asteroids, which come toward Earth from the direction of the Sun and lead and tail our planet's orbit.

“For the first time in our planet’s history, Earth’s inhabitants are developing methods to protect Earth by deflecting hazardous asteroids,” said Amy Mainzer, the mission’s survey director at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “But before we can deflect them, we first need to find them. NEO Surveyor will be a game-changer in that effort.”

The mission will also characterize near-Earth object composition, shape, spin, and orbit. The mission's main objective is planetary defense. Still, the data can also be used to learn more about the beginnings and evolution of asteroids and comets, which are the oldest constituents of our solar system.

NEO Surveyor will build on the achievements of its predecessor, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) when it launches. NEO Surveyor is the first satellite project whose only goal is to find a lot of these asteroids and comets that could be dangerous. NEOWISE was repurposed from the WISE space observatory after that mission concluded in 2011.

On November 29th, 2022, the mission reached this point, and work began on making essential tools. For example, the large radiators that will allow the system to cool itself passively are being built now. To pick up the weak infrared light from asteroids and comets, the infrared detectors in the instrument have to work at much lower temperatures than the electronics in the spacecraft.

The radiators will do this vital job, so there will be no need for complicated active cooling systems. In addition, work has started on the composite struts that will keep the telescope's equipment apart from the spacecraft. The sun-shield will block sunlight that would otherwise block the telescope's view of objects close to Earth and heat the instrument.

The struts will protect the cold instrument from the warm ship and sun-shield.

The instrument's infrared detectors, beam splitters, filters, electronics, and casing have progressed. Additionally, work has started on the mirror for the space telescope, which will be molded using a specially made-diamond-turning machine from a solid piece of aluminum.

“The project team, including all of our institutional and industrial collaborators, is already very busy designing and fabricating components that will ultimately become flight hardware,” said Tom Hoffman, NEO Surveyor project manager at JPL. “As the mission enters this new phase, we’re excited to be working on this unique space telescope and are already looking forward to our launch and the start of our important mission.”

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