NASA Plans Space Telescope to Hunt for Killer Asteroids

Asteroids and comets visited by spacecraft. (Credit: Planetary Society – Emily Lakdawalla)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA announced on Monday that it is planning to spend $500 to $600 million to develop the NEO Surveillance Mission that would begin hunting for large asteroids and comets that could strike Earth.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, made the announcement during a meeting of the Planetary Science Advisory Committee held in Washington, D.C. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) would lead the project, which would launch around 2025.

The new spacecraft would be heavily based on a JPL project named NEOCam, which the space agency has funded for study and instrument development but never selected as a mission. NEOCam‘s focus was on discovering asteroids and comets that could pose a danger to Earth.

NASA has placed a much higher emphasis on planetary defense in recent years. Congress has tasked the space agency with discovering 90 percent of the near-Earth asteroids at least 140 meters (159.3 ft) in diameter.

In 2013, NASA reactivated its decommissioned Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) astrophysics satellite to search for near Earth objections (NEOs) under the name of NEOWISE.

“As of mid-August 2019, NEOWISE is 36% of the way through its 12th coverage of the sky since the start of the Reactivation mission,” according to the spacecraft’s project page. “Over 840,000 infrared measurements have been made of 34,889 different solar system objects, including 1,030 NEOs and 176 comets.”

The NEO Surveillance Mission would scan the heavens in the infrared bandwidths for asteroids and comets not discovered by NEOWISE and other telescopes. The satellite’s mission would last 12 years.

NASA is also planning to launch the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission in 2021. The spacecraft will crash into a small moonlet of the asteroid Didymos to test a technique for deflecting NEOs.

DART is part of the larger international Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission. The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch a mission named Hera to study Didymos and determine the effect that DART had on its moonlet.