Recently Reactivated NASA Spacecraft Spots Its First New Asteroid


NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft has spotted a never-before-seen asteroid — its first such discovery since coming out of hibernation last year.

NEOWISE originally was called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), which had made the most comprehensive survey to date of asteroids and comets. The spacecraft was shut down in 2011 after its primary mission was completed. But in September 2013, it was reactivated, renamed and given a new mission, which is to assist NASA’s efforts to identify the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs). NEOWISE also can assist in characterizing previously detected asteroids that could be considered potential targets for future exploration missions

NEOWISE’s first discovery of its renewed mission came on Dec. 29 — a near-Earth asteroid designated 2013 YP139. The mission’s sophisticated software picked out the moving object against a background of stationary stars. As NEOWISE circled Earth scanning the sky, it observed the asteroid several times over half a day before the object moved beyond its view. Researchers at the University of Arizona used the Spacewatch telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory southwest of Tucson to confirm the discovery. Peter Birtwhistle, an amateur astronomer at the Great Shefford Observatory in West Berkshire, England, also contributed follow-up observations. NASA expects 2013 YP139 will be the first of hundreds of asteroid discoveries for NEOWISE.

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