It's been a busy year for the study of asteroids. In February, we watched DA14 pass precariously close to our planet mere hours after Russia was hit with a space rock that seemingly came out of nowhere.
Obviously, we need a better way to track and detect asteroids coming into our vicinity. To this end, NASA says it has successfully tested a new infrared sensor called the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) that could help us spot dangerous objects in space.
The problem with spotting asteroids using optical telescopes is they rely on visible light. Asteroids that come within 28 million miles of Earth as it orbits around the sun end up reflecting visible light, which may cause a small object to be mistakenly identified as a world-ending asteroid. Meanwhile, dark objects might be missed all together.
To address these problems, scientists from Teledyne Imaging Sensors, in collaboration with researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Rochester, have developed a new high-quality infrared sensor composed of mercury, cadmium, and tellurium. This new postage stamp-sized megapixel sensor detects asteroids by searching for the faint heat they give off, which it sees as infrared wavelengths.
"When you observe a space rock with infrared, you are seeing its thermal emissions," Amy Mainzer, a contributor to JPL's larger NEOWISE project, said in a release. "[This] can better define the asteroid's size, as well as tell you something about composition."
The sensor is the product of almost 10 years of scientific research. NASA recently tested the sensor in a simulated environment with temperatures and pressures similar to those in deep space.
The NEOCam is also just part of the larger Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) project. The project originally launched in December of last year to scan the entire sky using infrared light. So far, it has already captured more than 2.7 million images of objects in space, including whole galaxies and passing comets. At the same time, NASA scientists say the NEOCam could be used as a vital component in the agency's plan to capture asteroids and drag them to the Moon.
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