A space telescope designed to search for asteroids and comets that stray into Earth’s orbital vicinity, NASA’s NEO Surveyor (Near-Earth Object Surveyor) recently underwent a rigorous technical overhaul. The mission is now moving into the final design and manufacturing phase and establishing its technical, cost and schedule baseline.

The mission supports the objectives of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The 2005 NASA Authorization Act mandated that the agency discover and characterize at least 90 percent of near-Earth objects larger than 140 meters in diameter that are less than 30 million miles from our planet’s orbit .

Objects of these sizes are capable of causing significant regional damage or worse if they were to impact Earth.

“NEO Surveyor represents the next generation for NASA’s ability to rapidly detect, track and characterize potentially hazardous near-Earth objects,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer at PDCO.

NEO Surveyor will be able to find asteroids approaching Earth

“Ground-based telescopes remain critical to enabling us to constantly monitor the sky, but an infrared space observatory is the pinnacle that will enable NASA’s planetary defense strategy.”

Managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, NEO Surveyor will travel to a region of gravitational stability — called the L1 Lagrange point — between Earth and the Sun, where the spacecraft will orbit during its five-year primary mission.

From this location, NEO Surveyor will observe the Solar System in infrared wavelengths – light that is invisible to the human eye, he writes Phys.org.

Because these wavelengths are largely blocked by Earth’s atmosphere, larger ground-based observatories can miss near-Earth objects, which this space telescope will be able to detect using its modest light-gathering aperture of nearly 50 centimeters.

Primary mission objective: planetary defense

NEO Surveyor’s state-of-the-art detectors are designed to observe two heat-sensitive infrared bands, which were specifically chosen so that the spacecraft can track the most difficult near-Earth objects, such as dark asteroids and low-reflecting comets lots of visible light. In the infrared wavelengths that NEO Surveyor is sensitive to, these objects glow because they are heated by sunlight.

In addition, NEO Surveyor will be able to find asteroids approaching Earth from the direction of the Sun, as well as those that drive and follow our planet’s orbit, where they are usually hidden from the glare of sunlight.

The mission will also help characterize the composition, shape, rotation and orbit of near-Earth objects. Although the primary objective of the mission is planetary defense, this information can be used to better understand the origins and evolution of asteroids and comets, which formed the ancient building blocks of our Solar System.

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