NASA’s NEOWISE Missions Spots New Comets

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) accomplished much during its first mission, which ran from December of 2009 to September of 2010. During the many months that it was active, the orbital telescope conducted an all-sky astronomical survey in the infrared band and discovered thousands of minor planets and numerous star clusters.

The extension of its mission, NEOWISE, has brought new life to the telescope as a comet and asteroid hunter. And since its re-activation in December of 2013, the orbiting telescope has spotted hundreds of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and thousands of Main Belt asteroids. Most recently, it has detected two new objects (both possibly comets) which could be observable from Earth very soon.

The most recent object to be detected – 2016 WF9 – was first observed by NEOWISE on November 27th, 2016. This comet’s path through the Solar System takes it on a circuitous route, taking it from Jupiter to just inside the orbit of Earth over the course of 4.9 years. Much like other objects of its kind, 2016 WF9 may have once been a comet, or part of a  population of dark objects in the Main Asteroid Belt.

Artist’s rendition of the comet 2016 WF9 as it passes Jupiter’s orbit and moves toward the sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In any case, 2016 WF9 will approach Earth’s orbit on February 25th, 2017, passing Earth at a minimum distance of almost 51 million km (32 million mi). This will place it well outside the orbit of the Moon, so the odds of it threatening Earth are negligible. But for those keen observers hoping to catch sight of the object, it will be close enough that it might be visible with just a pair of binoculars.

Since its discovery, 2016 WF9 has been of interest to astronomers, mainly because it straddles the already blurry line between asteroids and comets. While its proportions are known – roughly 0.5 to 1 kilometer in diameter (0.3 to 0.6 miles) – its other characteristics have led to some confusion as to where it came from. For one, its appearance (which is quite dark) and its orbit are consistent with what one expects from a comet.

But on the other hand, it lacks the characteristic cloud of dust and gas that comets are known for. As James Bauer, NEOWISE’s Deputy Principal Investigator at JPL, said in a NASA press release:

“2016 WF9 could have cometary origins. This object illustrates that the boundary between asteroids and comets is a blurry one; perhaps over time this object has lost the majority of the volatiles that linger on or just under its surface.”

Graphic showing the asteroids and comets observed by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/JHU

The other object, C/2016 U1 NEOWISE, was discovered about a month prior to 2016 WF9. Its orbit, which can you see by checking out the 3D Solar System Simulator, takes it from the outer Solar System to within Mercury’s orbit over the course of thousands of years. According to NASA scientists, this object is very clearly a comet, as evidenced by the dust it has been releasing as it gets closer to our Sun.

During the first week of 2017, comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is also likely to be visible in the night sky – in this case, in the southeastern sky shortly before dawn (for those looking from the northern hemisphere). It will reach its closest point to the Sun on January 14th (where it will be passing within Mercury’s orbit) before heading back out towards the outer Solar System.

Once again, it is believed that comet-hunters should be able to see it, though that is open to question. Paul Chodas, the manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, thinks that this object “has a good chance of becoming visible through a good pair of binoculars, although we can’t be sure because a comet’s brightness is notoriously unpredictable.”

A mosaic of the images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), part of its All-Sky Data Release. Credit: NASA/JPL

In any case, NASA will be continuing to monitor 2016 WF9 to see if they can’t sort out what it is. Should it prove to be a comet, it would be the tenth discovered by NEOWISE since it was reactivated in December of 2013. If it turns out to be an asteroid, it would be the one-hundredth discovered since its reactivation.

As of November 2016, the orbital telescope has conducted over 562,000 infrared measurements have been made of 24,024 different solar system objects, including 613 NEOs and 110 comets. It has also been responsible for discovering 249 new near-Earth objects and comets, as well as more than 34,000 asteroids during its original mission.

At present, NEOWISE’s science team is currently reprocessing all its primary mission data to extend the search for asteroids and comets. It is hoped that by taking advantage of the latest in photometric and astrometric calibrations, they will be able to push the limits of what the telescope can detect, thereby adding many more minor planets and objects to its suite of discoveries.

And be sure to enjoy this video, detailing the first two years of asteroid data collected by the NEOWISE mission:

Further Reading: NASA

NASA Discovers 72 New Asteroids Near Earth

Of the more than 600,000 known asteroids in our Solar System, almost 10 000 are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). These are asteroids or comets whose orbits bring them close to Earth’s, and which could potentially collide with us at some point in the future. As such, monitoring these objects is a vital part of NASA’s ongoing efforts in space. One such mission is NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), which has been active since December 2013.

And now, after two years of study, the information gathered by the mission is being released to the public. This included, most recently, NEOWISE’s second year of survey data, which accounted for 72 previously unknown objects that orbit near to our planet. Of these, eight were classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), based on their size and how closely their orbits approach Earth.

Continue reading “NASA Discovers 72 New Asteroids Near Earth”

The Next Generation of Exploration: The NEOCam Mission

In February of 2014, NASA put out the call for submissions for the thirteenth mission of their Discovery Program. In keeping with the program’s goal of mounting low-cost, highly focused missions to explore the Solar System, the latest program is focused on missions that look beyond Mars to new research goals. On September 30th, 2015, five semifinalists were announced, which included proposals for sending probes back to Venus, to sending orbiters to study asteroids and Near-Earth Objects.

Among the proposed NEO missions is the Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam. Consisting of a space-based infrared telescope designed to survey the Solar System for potentially hazardous asteroids, the NEOCam would be responsible for discovering and characterizing ten times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs that have discovered to date.

If deployed, NEOCam will begin discovering approximately one million asteroids in the Main Belt and thousands of comets in the course of its 4 year mission. However, the primary scientific goal of NEOCam is to discover and characterize over two-thirds of the asteroids that are larger that 140 meters, since it is possible some of these might pose a threat to Earth someday.

The NEOCam space telescope will survey the regions of space closest to the Earth's orbit, where potentially hazardous asteroids are most likely to be found. NEOCam will use infrared light to characterize their physical properties such as their diameters. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of the NEOCam spacecraft, a proposed mission for NASA’s Discovery program that would search for potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The technical term is Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO), and it applies to near-Earth asteroids/comets that have an orbit that will allow them to make close approaches to Earth. And measuring more than 140 meters in diameter, they are of sufficient size that they could cause significant regional damage if they struck Earth.

In fact, a study conducted in 2010 through the Imperial College of London and Purdue University found that an asteroid measuring 50-meters across with a density of 2.6 grams per cubic centimeter and a speed of 12.7 kps could generate 2.9 Megatons of airburst energy once it passed through our atmosphere. To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of about nine W87 thermonuclear warheads!

By comparison, the meteor that appeared over the small Russian community of Chelyabinsk in 2013 measured only 20 meters across. Nevertheless, the explosive airbust caused by it entering our atmosphere generated only 500 kilotons of energy,  creating a zone of destruction tens of kilometers wide and injuring 1,491 people. One can imagine without much effort how much worse it would have been had the explosion been six times as big!

What’s more, as of August 1st, 2015, NASA has listed a total of 1,605 potentially hazardous asteroids and 85 near-Earth comets. Among these, there are 154 PHAs believed to be larger than one kilometer in diameter. This represents a tenfold increase in discoveries since the end of the 1990s, which is due to several astronomical surveys being performed (as well as improvements in detection methods) over the past two and a half decades.

The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As a result, monitoring and characterizing which of these objects is likely to pose a threat to Earth in the future has been a scientific priority in recent years. It is also why the U.S. Congress passed the “George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act” in 2005. Also known as the “NASA Authorization Act of 2005”, this Act of Congress mandated that NASA identify 90% of all NEOs that could pose a threat to Earth.

If deployed, NEOCam will monitor NEOs from the Earth–Sun L1 Lagrange point, allowing it to look close to the Sun and see objects inside Earth’s orbit. To this, NEOCam will rely on a single scientific instrument: a 50 cm diameter telescope that operates at two heat-sensing infrared wavelengths, to detect the even the dark asteroids that are hardest to find.

By using two heat-sensitive infrared imaging channels, NEOCam can also make accurate measurements of NEO and gain valuable information about their sizes, composition, shapes, rotational states, and orbits. As Dr. Amy Mainzer, the Principal Investigator of the NEOCam mission,  explained:

“Everyone wants to know about asteroids hitting the Earth; NEOCam is designed to tackle this issue. We expect that NEOCam will discover about ten times more asteroids than are currently known, plus millions of asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. By conducting a comprehensive asteroid survey, NEOCam will address three needs: planetary defense, understanding the origins and evolution of our solar system, and finding new destinations for future exploration.”

Dr. Mainzer is no stranger to infrared imaging for the sake of space exploration. In addition to being the Principal Investigator on this mission and a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she is also the Deputy Project Scientist for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and the Principal Investigator for the NEOWISE project to study minor planets.

She has also appeared many times on the History Channel series The Universe, the documentary featurette “Stellar Cartography: On Earth”, and serves as the science consultant and host for the live-action PBS Kids series Ready Jet Go!, which will be debuting in the winter of 2016. Under her direction, the NEOCam mission will also study the origin and ultimate fate of our solar system’s asteroids, and finding the most suitable NEO targets for future exploration by robots and humans.

Proposals for NEOCam have been submitted a total of three times to the NASA Discovery Program – in 2006, 2010, and 2015, respectively. In 2010, NEOCam was selected to receive technology development funding to design and test new detectors optimized for asteroid and comet detection and discovery. However, the mission was ultimately overruled in favor of the Mars InSight Lander, which is scheduled for launch in 2016.

As one of the semifinalists for Discovery Mission 13, the NEOCam mission has received $3 million for year-long studies to lay out detailed mission plans and reduce risks. In September of 2016, one or two finalist will be selected to receive the program’s budget of $450 million (minus the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations), and will launch in 2020 at the earliest.

In related news, NASA has confirmed that the asteroid known as 86666 (2000 FL10) will be passing Earth tomorrow. No need to worry, though. At its closest approach, the asteroid will still be at a distance of 892,577 km (554,000 mi) from Earth. Still, every passing rock underlines the need for knowing more about NEOs and where they might be headed one day!

Comet K1 PanSTARRS: See It Now Before it Heads South

Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS, one of the most dependable comets of 2014, may put on its encore performance over the coming weeks for southern hemisphere observers.

First, the story thus far. Discovered as a +19th magnitude smudge along the borders of the constellations Ophiuchus and Hercules in mid-May 2012 courtesy of the Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System (PanSTARRS) based atop Haleakala on the Hawaiian island of Maui, astronomers soon realized that comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS would be something special.

The comet broke +10th magnitude to become a visible binocular object in early 2014, and wowed northern hemisphere observers as it vaulted across the constellations of Boötes and Ursa Major this past spring.

NEOWISE
NASA’s NEOWISE mission spies K1 PanSTARRS on May 20th as it slides by the galaxy NGC 3726 (blue). Credit: NASA/JPL.

The comet is approaching the inner solar system on a retrograde, highly-inclined orbit tilted 142 degrees relative the ecliptic. This bizarre orbit also assures that the comet will actually reach opposition twice in 2014 as seen from our earthly vantage point: once on April 15th, and another opposition coming right up on November 7th.

As was the case with comet Hale-Bopp way back in 1997, had C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS arrived six months earlier or later, we would’ve been in for a truly spectacular show, as the comet reached perihelion on August 27th, 2014, only 0.05 A.U.s (4.6 million miles or 7.7 million kilometres) outside the orbit of the Earth! But such a spectacle was not to be… back in ’97, Hale-Bopp’s enormous size — featuring a nucleus estimated 40 to 60 kilometres across — made for a grand show regardless… fast forward to 2014, and the tinier nucleus of K1 PanSTARRS has been relegated to binocular status only.

Credit
The position of comet K1 PanSTARRS as it passes its second opposition of the year. Credit: NASA/JPL.

From here on out, K1 PanSTARRS is headed south “with a bullet” and into memory for most northern hemisphere observers. We spied the comet this morning low to the south near +3rd magnitude Nu Puppis in the pre-dawn sky with our trusty 15×45 binocs from Yuma, Arizona, for what will probably be our last time. This also means that the time to catch a last glimpse of K1 PanSTARRS for northern hemisphere viewers is now. This week sees the comet transiting just 20 degrees above the southern horizon at 3:00 to 4:00 AM local for observers based from latitude 30 degrees north as it crosses the constellation Puppis. The bright star Sirius nearly shares the same position as the comet in right ascension this week, and K1 PanSTARRS sits about 24 degrees south of the Dog Star.

K1 PanSTARRS jaicoa
Comet K1 PanSTARRS imaged on June 14th. Credit: Efrain Morales.

Halloween sees the comet even lower, crossing the southern meridian at only 13 degrees elevation as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Draw a straight line from Sirius to the south celestial pole around this date to find the comet just 5 degrees to the north of Canopus.

But the show is just beginning for southern hemisphere residents. Observing from the town of Bright Australia, Robert Kaufmann recently noted in a posting on the Yahoo Groups Comet Observer’s message board that the comet currently exhibits a 4’ wide coma shining at about magnitude +7.3 with an elevation of 28 degrees above the horizon on October 25th.

And if the comet holds steady in brightness, it may break the visual threshold and become a naked eye object as seen from a dark sky site in early November.

Light curve
The projected light curve of K1 PanSTARRS with brightness observations (black dots). The vertical pink line marks the comet’s perihelion passage in late August. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information on Bright Comets.

The comet will be literally “hauling tail” across the constellation Dorado as it nears its second opposition of the year on November 7th, moving about 1.5 degrees a day – 3 times the apparent diameter of the Full Moon – on closest approach.

Currently, the comet has been observed to have an estimated magnitude holding steady at+7 and is predicted to peak at perhaps magnitude +6 early next month. And while it would’ve been great had it arrived 6 months earlier or later, the aforementioned high retrograde inclination of its orbit assured that K1 PanSTARRS was a top performer for both hemispheres in 2014.

Perihelion passage occurred two months ago, but to paraphrase a famous Monty Python skit, Comet K1 PanSTARRS is “not dead yet.”  Here are some key observing dates coming right up as the comet gains prominence in the southern hemisphere sky:

(Note that close passages of less than one degree near stars +4th magnitude or brighter only are mentioned).

Oct 31st: Passes closest to Earth, at 0.953 A.U.s distant.

Nov 1st: Crosses into the constellation Pictor.

Nov 2nd: Passes near the +3.8 magnitude star Beta Pictoris.

Nov 6th: Crosses into the constellation Dorado.

Nov 6th: Full Moon occurs, marking the beginning of an unfavorable week for comet hunting.

Nov 7th: The second opposition of the comet for 2014 occurs at 3:00 UT.

Nov 8th: Passes near the +3.3 magnitude star Alpha Doradus.

Nov 11th: Crosses into the constellation Reticulum.

Nov 13th: Crosses into the constellation Horologium.

Nov 14th: Passes 34 degrees from the South Celestial Pole.

Nov 20th: Crosses into the constellation Eridanus.

Nov 22nd: New Moon occurs, marking a week long span optimal for comet-hunting.

Nov 25th: Crosses into the constellation Phoenix.

Starry Night Education Software.
The path of K1 PanSTARRS from October 27th through December 1st. Created by the author using Starry Night Education Software.

Dec 6th: Full Moon occurs.

Dec 12th: Passes near the +2.8 magnitude star Alpha Phoenicis (Ankaa).

Dec 18th: Crosses into the constellation Sculptor.

Dec 22nd: New Moon occurs.

Looking at 2015, K1 PanSTARRS will probably fall back below +10th magnitude by late January. The comet will then head back out into the depths of the outer solar system, its multi-million year orbit only slightly altered by its inner solar system passage down into the ~700,000 year range. What will Earth be like on that far off date? Will human eyes greet the comet once again, and will anyone remember its appearance way back in the mists of time in 2014? All thoughts to ponder as we bid fair well to Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS, a fine binocular comet indeed.

 

Will an Asteroid Smack Jupiter in 2022?

A recent space rock discovery has sent a minor buzz through the community that tracks such objects. And as usual, it has also begun to attract the dubious attention of those less than honorable sites — we won’t dignify them with links — that like to trumpet gloom and doom, and we thought we’d set the record straight, or at very least, head the Woo off at the pass as quickly as possible.

The asteroid in question is 2014 KM4. Discovered earlier this month, this 192 metre space rock safely passed by the Earth-Moon system at 0.17 A.U.s distant on April 21st. No real biggie, as asteroids pass lots closer all the time. For example, we just had a 6-metre asteroid named 2014 KC45 pass about 48,000 miles (about 80,000 kilometres) from the Earth yesterday morning. That’s about twice the distance of the orbit of geosynchronous satellites and 20% the distance to the Moon.

Sure, it’s a dangerous universe out there… you only have to stand in the Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona outside of Flagstaff or watch the videos of a meteor exploding over Chelyabinsk last year the day after Valentine’s Day to know that. But what makes 2014 KM4 interesting is its orbit and its potential to approach Jupiter in about seven years.

Or not. One dilemma with orbital mechanics is that the precision of a known orbital path relies on the number of observations made and that position gets more and more uncertain as we project an object’s position ahead in space and time. 2014 KM4 is on a 5.08 year orbit inclined 5.2 degrees to the ecliptic plane that brings it juuusst inside the Earth’s orbit — hence the Apollo designation — and out to an aphelion point very near Jupiter at 5.2 A.U.s from the Sun. But that’s only based on 14 observations made over a span of 5 days. The current nominal trajectory sees 2014 KM4 pass about 0.1 A.U. or 15.5 million kilometres from Jupiter on January 16th 2022. That’s inside the orbit of Jupiter’s outermost moons, but comfortably outside of the orbit of the Galilean moons. The current chance of 2014 KM4 actually impacting Jupiter sits at around 1% and the general trend for these kinds of measurements is for the probability to go down as better observations are made. This is just what happened last year when comet 2013 A1 Siding Spring was discovered to pass very close to Mars later this year on October 19th.

We caught up with JPL astronomer Amy Mainzer, Principal Investigator on the NEOWISE project currently hunting for Near Earth Asteroids for her thoughts on the subject.

“The uncertainty in this object’s orbit is huge since it only has a 5 day observational arc,” Mainzer told Universe Today. “A quick check of the JPL NEO orbit page shows that the uncertainty in its semi-major axis is a whopping 0.47 astronomical units! That’s a huge uncertainty.”

“At this point, any possibility of impact with Jupiter is highly uncertain and probably not likely to happen. But it does point out why it’s so important to extend observational arcs out so that we can extend the arc far enough out so that future observers can nab an object when it makes its next appearance.”

Jupiter takes a beating from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. Credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope team.
Jupiter takes a beating from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. Credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope team.

IF (that less than 1% “IF”) 2014 KM4 were to hit Jupiter, it would represent the most distant projection ahead in time of such an event. About two decades ago, humanity had a front row seat to the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter in July 1994. At an estimated 192 metres in size, 2014 KM4 is about the size of the “D” fragment that hit Jupiter on July 17th 1994. 2014 KM4 has an absolute magnitude (for asteroids, this is how bright they’d appear at 1 A.U. distant) of +21.3 and is currently well placed for follow up observations in the constellation Virgo.

And astronomer Nick Howes mentioned to Universe Today that the Faulkes Telescope North may soon be used to make further observations of 2014 KM4. In the meantime, you can enjoy the animation of their observations of another Near-Earth Asteroid, 2014 KP4.

An animation of the motion of PHA asteroid 2014 KP4. Credit: Remanzacco Observatory.
An animation of the motion of PHA asteroid 2014 KP4. Credit: Remanzacco Observatory.

And yes, the 2022 pass of 2014 KM4 near Jupiter will modify the orbit of the asteroid… but not in our direction. Jupiter is a great “goal tender” in this regard, protecting the inner solar system from incoming hazards.

2014 KM4 is well worth keeping an eye on, but will most likely vanish from interest until it returns to our neck of the solar system in 2065. And no, a killer asteroid won’t hit the Earth in 2045, as a CNN iReport (since removed) stated earlier this week… on “March 35th” no less. Pro-tip for all you conspiracy types out there that think “Big NASA” is secretly hiding the next “big one” from the public: when concocting the apocalypse, please refer to a calendar for a fictional date that at least actually exists!

 

UPDATE: NASA Senior Review Declines WISE Spacecraft Data Usage Idea

Kevin Luhman discovered the brown dwarf pair in data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE; artist's impression). Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

CORRECTION: This story corrects a previously stated misinterpretation of the NASA Senior Report that the WISE spacecraft itself was denied an extension. 

NASA has denied funding to an idea to use NEOWISE image exposures for additional processing for science purposes, according to Amy Mainzer, the deputy project scientist for the  Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The project, called MaxWISE, was supposed to run for three years and to use NEOWISE data for other purposes.

“We were hoping it would be possible to combine data from the prime mission, with the NEO mission, to look at
things that vary on different timescales,” Mainzer said in an interview Friday (May 16) with Universe Today.

Its goals would have included measuring the motions and distances for stars and brown dwarfs near the sun, examining variable stars and setting up a “transient detection and alerts program” for certain astronomical phenomena.

This is a mosaic of the images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), part of its All-Sky Data Release. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
This is a mosaic of the images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), part of its All-Sky Data Release. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

In its review, the panel said it was “concerned that the proposed transient detection program would yield little science considering how much it cost”, and approved the program at half of the budgetary levels originally requested. NASA, however, wrote that it would decline the proposal altogether.

“The MaxWISE proposal was recommended for selection by the senior review. However, the only source of funding would be to displace funding from higher rated operating missions in the senior review. Due to constrained budget conditions, the MaxWISE proposal is declined,” NASA wrote in its response.

“It’s tremendously disappointing,” Mainzer said of the decision, adding  it is a tough NASA budget environment overall. She is encouraging people to get in touch with their elected representatives if they want to see changes.

Other approved missions included a Kepler space telescope repurposing and extended operations for the Hubble and Chandra telescopes, among other missions. Spitzer officials were declined their request and asked to send a revised budget for consideration in fiscal 2016 negotiations.

WISE J104915.57-531906 as seen in NASA’s All-WISE survey (centered) and resolved to show its binary nature by the Gemini Observatory (inset). (Credit: NASA/JPL/Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF).
WISE J104915.57-531906 as seen in NASA’s All-WISE survey (centered) and resolved to show its binary nature by the Gemini Observatory (inset). (Credit: NASA/JPL/Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF).

After its launch in 2009 and successful prime mission, WISE was put into hibernation in 2011 before being turned on again last summer to look for asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth, and possibly to participate in NASA’s asteroid mission by looking for a space rock that could be captured and explored.

NEOWISE is expected to run until about 2016 or 2017, depending on how active the Earth’s atmosphere becomes. Since the spacecraft is in a relatively low orbit of 311 miles (500 km), if the sun’s activity increases molecule interactions in the atmosphere and expands it, the spacecraft can be somewhat twisted out of its orbit. Also, more scattering can occur. Both would make it harder for the spacecraft to carry out its mission, Mainzer said.

In the meantime, amateur astronomers can follow along with one of NEOWISE’s recent discoveries: the spacecraft recently found a fairly large near-Earth asteroid, about 1.24 miles to 1.86 miles (2 to 3 km) in size. It’s called 2014 JH 57 and you can get more orbital parameters on it at this page after typing in “2014 JH57” (no quotes) into the search bar.

You can read more about the senior review here.

NEOWISE Spots a “Weirdo” Comet

NASA’s NEOWISE mission — formerly known as just WISE — has identified the first comet of its new near-Earth object hunting career… and, according to mission scientists, it’s a “weirdo.”

In its former life NASA’s WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) spacecraft scanned the entire sky in infrared wavelengths. It helped discover the galaxy’s coldest stars, the Universe’s brightest galaxies, and some of the darkest asteroids lurking in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter… as well as closer in to Earth’s neck of the woods.

After exhausting its supply of liquid coolant needed to shield itself from its own radiating heat, in 2011 WISE was put into a state of hibernation. It was awoken last year and rebranded NEOWISE, and set upon the task of locating unknown objects with orbits in the proximity of Earth’s.

Kevin Luhman discovered the brown dwarf pair in data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE; artist's impression). Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s impression of the WISE satellite

To date several new asteroids have already been found by NEOWISE, and on February 14, 2014, it spotted its first comet.

“We are so pleased to have discovered this frozen visitor from the outermost reaches of our solar system,” said Amy Mainzer, NEOWISE principal investigator at JPL. “This comet is a weirdo — it is in a retrograde orbit, meaning that it orbits the sun in the opposite sense from Earth and the other planets.”

Designated “C/2014 C3 (NEOWISE),” the comet was 143 million miles (230 million km) away in the image above — a composite made from six infrared exposures. That’s 585 times the distance to the Moon, or about the average distance between the Earth and Mars.

The tail of the comet NEOWISE extends about 25,000 miles (40,000 km) to the right in the image.

Overall, C/2014 C3 (NEOWISE) was spotted six times before it moved out of range of the spacecraft’s view. The comet has a highly-eccentric 20-year orbit that takes it high above the plane of the Solar System and out past the orbit of Jupiter. Technically, with a perihelion distance greater than 1.3 AU, comet C/2014 C3 does not classify as a near-Earth object (and its orbit does not intersect Earth’s.) But it’s still good to know that NEOWISE is looking out for us.

Read more on JPL’s NEOWISE site here, and see details on the comet’s orbit on the Minor Planet Center’s website here and from JPL’s Small-Body Database here.

Source: NASA/JPL

After A Long Nap, NEOWISE Springs Into Action With Asteroid Discoveries

If anything, NASA’s asteroid-hunting spacecraft seems to be refreshed after going into forced hibernation for 2.5 years. In the first 25 days since it started seeking small solar system bodies in earnest again, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) found three new objects and detected an additional 854, NASA said Thursday (Jan. 23).

Luckily for people interested in this field, Amy Mainzer (the principal investigator for this mission) has been tweeting out discoveries as they come — and other observations besides. “Just passed our @WISE_Mission post-restart review. I believe the technical term is “Yee haw!!” she wrote Jan. 21. Below are a couple of illustrated examples of discoveries from her Twitter feed. Click on the pictures for larger versions.

2014 AA53 NEOWISE

2014 AQ46 NEOWISE

In a release, NASA added that NEOWISE is “observing and characterizing” one NEO a day, which means not only looking at the object, but probing its size and composition. Astronomers know of about 10,500 NEOs, but of those only 10% (or about 1,500) have physical measurements cataloged as well. NEOWISE investigators aim to make hundreds of more of these measurements.

The mission (originally called WISE) launched in December 2009 to examine the universe in infrared light. After completely mapping the sky, it ran out of coolant it needed to do this work in 2010. It then shifted to examining comets and asteroids before being put into hibernation in February 2011. Read more about its mission history in this past Universe Today article.

How A New Family Tree of Space Rocks Could Better Protect Earth

An artist's conception of an asteroid collision, which leads to how "families" of these space rocks are made in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In perhaps the neatest astronomical application of geneology yet, astronomers found 28 “hidden” families of asteroids that could eventually show them how some rocks get into orbits that skirt the Earth’s path in space.

From scanning millions of snapshots of asteroid heat signatures in the infrared, these groups popped out in an all-sky survey of asteroids undertaken by NASA’s orbiting Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer. This survey took place in the belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, where most near-Earth objects (NEOs) come from.

NEOs, to back up for a second, are asteroids and comets that approach Earth’s orbit from within 28 million miles (45 million kilometers). Sometimes, a gravitational push can send a previously unthreatening rock closer to the planet’s direction. The dinosaurs’ extinction roughly 65 million years ago, for example, is widely attributed to a massive rock collision on Earth.

Part of NASA’s job is to keep an eye out for potentially hazardous asteroids and consider approaches to lessen the threat.

Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA

There are about 600,000 known asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, and the survey looked at about 120,000 of them. Astronomers then attempted to group some of them into “families”, which are best determined by the mineral composition of an asteroid and how much light it reflects.

While it’s hard to measure reflectivity in visible light — a big, dark asteroid reflects a similar amount of light as a small shiny one — infrared observations are harder to fool. Bigger objects give off more heat.

This allowed astronomers to reclassify some previously studied asteroids (which were previously grouped by their orbits), and come up with 28 new families.

“This will help us trace the NEOs back to their sources and understand how some of them have migrated to orbits hazardous to the Earth,” stated Lindley Johnson, NASA’s program executive for the Near-Earth Object Observation Program.

This diagram illustrates the differences between orbits of a typical near-Earth asteroid (blue) and a potentially hazardous asteroid, or PHA (orange). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This diagram illustrates the differences between orbits of a typical near-Earth asteroid (blue) and a potentially hazardous asteroid, or PHA (orange). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The astronomers next hope to study these different families to figure out their parent bodies. Astronomers believe that many asteroids we see today broke off from something much larger, most likely through a collision at some point in the past.

While Earthlings will be most interested in how NEOs came from these larger bodies and threaten the planet today, astronomers are also interested in learning how the asteroid belt formed and why the rocks did not coalesce into a planet.

The prevailing theory today says that was due to influences from giant Jupiter’s strong gravity, which to this day pulls many incoming comets and asteroids into different orbits if they swing too close. (Just look at what happened to Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994, for example.)

Source: NASA