Mothballed telescope to morph into asteroid hunter
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.
NASA will reactivate a mothballed infrared space telescope for a three-year mission to search for potentially dangerous asteroids on a collision course with Earth, officials said on Wednesday.
The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, telescope also will hunt for targets for a future mission to send a robotic spacecraft to rendezvous with a small asteroid and relocate all or part of it into a high orbit around the moon.
Astronauts would then visit the relocated asteroid during a test flight of NASA's deep-space Orion capsule, scheduled for launch around 2021. Orion and a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System are slated for an unmanned debut test flight in 2017.
NASA is spending about $3 billion a year for Orion and Space Launch System development.
Launched in December 2009, the WISE telescope spent 13 months scouting for telltale infrared signs of asteroids, stars, distant galaxies and other celestial objects, especially those too dim to radiate in visible light.
As part of its all-sky mapping mission, WISE observed more than 34,000 asteroids in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and another 135 asteroids in orbits that come close to Earth.
Overall, scientists cataloged more than 560 million objects with WISE.
Most of the telescope's instruments were turned off when its primary mission was completed in February 2011.
NASA plans to bring WISE out of hibernation next month and operate it for another three years, at a cost of about $5 million per year, said NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown.
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