NASA Resurrects a Dead Satellite to Hunt Asteroids

For nearly three years, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite was one of our most potent tools in the search for asteroids, discovering 33,500 of them (more than a dozen of which are potential impact threats) before being placed into hibernation in 2011.
But with a new-found interest in asteroid mining, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab has decided to fire the old girl back up for another round of space rock spotting.

“The WISE mission achieved its mission’s goals and as NEOWISE extended the science even further in its survey of asteroids. NASA is now extending that record of success, which will enhance our ability to find potentially hazardous asteroids, and support the new asteroid initiative,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington in a press statement.

During its initial mission, the WISE trained its array of four-band IR sensors—which are 500,000 times more more sensitive than the COBE survey completed in the 1990s—on the glowing trails of space debris, stars, and other galaxies, snapping 7,500 images a day between 2010 and 2011. See, since asteroids don’t emit light (they only reflect it), small asteroids with a large albedo—its relative reflectiveness—will appear the same size as a larger, darker asteroid when viewed through an optical telescope. IR peers through the reflected light to accurately size up the orbiting rubble.

Once fully rebooted, the 1,200-pound WISE will scan the skies with its 16-inch telescope, searching for Near Earth Objects. Anything within 45 million kilometres of the planet’s orbit is considered an NEO and NASA estimates the WISE should detect another 150 or so previously unknown NEOs while recording their size, albedo, and temperature.

And with any luck, the WISE will spot incoming threats and mining opportunities alike before the chance to act passes us by.