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August 27, 2013

OUR SPACE: WISE spacecraft is now NEOWISE

MILLEDGEVILLE — Loyal Our Space readers will remember the excitement when the WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) spacecraft was launched in December 2009. Over the course of the year of its primary mission the space telescope took around 7,500 pictures a day as it scanned the entire night sky around the Earth for heat signatures of asteroids and other celestial bodies.

Asteroids, like all rocky lumps out there in space, do not emit visible light of their own, but they reflect sunlight and are thus warmed by it. The infrared portion of this reflection is what WISE went after, and it discovered some tens of thousands of asteroids, which were duly catalogued and categorized, had their orbits calculated and other vital stats analyzed.

WISE was especially useful in surveying the so-called NEOs, or Near-Earth-Asteroids. Yep, those are the ones that might end up as a smoking lawn ornament in your backyard. Remember the giant rock that wreaked havoc over a Russian city earlier this year? That’s the kind WISE had been looking for.

That big space rock provided a bit of a wake-up call and an incentive for more research into asteroids and other space rocks that could be potential threats to life on Earth as we know it.

The dinosaurs could tell you a story or two about that.

Oh, wait — they were wiped out in the wake of the tremendous climate change of a large asteroid impact. Well, so much for that.

The danger of NEO impacts is real and immediate, and more research and diligent observation is needed.

A short while ago you read about NASA’s plan to bag an asteroid and either bring it back closer to Earth for study, or alter its orbit in such a way that it can be studied at a more reasonable distance, or, in case of one of those potential menaces, change its orbit in such a fashion that it will never hit Earth at all.

So, how cool is it that we already have a fully functioning space telescope up there whose primary mission was to study said space rocks! With that, NASA is re-activating WISE, giving it a new (and improved) name with NEOWISE (which stands exactly for what you think it stands for!), and another three year lease on life.

WISE had already studied 135 of those NEOs, so its mission managers, engineers and programmers have had the best training possible for the task ahead. Needless to say they’re excited to go back to doing what they’re so good at, and because the hardware is already up there, there’s no launch costs or any of that pesky start-up money required.

They’ll tell the spacecraft to turn itself back on, run a bunch of diagnostics and checkups, upload new software, and then it’s back to the daily grind of looking for the ideal candidate for the “bag an asteroid”. Well, its proper name is the First Stage of the Asteroid Initiative, which will lead to far more than just catching a space rock. Ultimately it will lead to landing humans on an asteroid to explore it and determine possibilities for mining and other natural resource utilization.

Wagons ho!

Celebrate NEOWISE’s un-retirement at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/wise/

Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at our_space2@yahoo.com

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