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NASA is designing a space telescope to protect Earth from asteroid impacts

NEO Surveyor is a new mission proposal designed to discover and characterize most of the potentially hazardous asteroids that are near the Earth.
The NEO Surveyor, a proposed space telescope designed to discover and characterize most of the potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that come within 30 million miles of Earth. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA is planning a new telescope to detect potentially dangerous asteroids and comets that could threaten the planet. The space telescope, called the Near-Earth Object Surveyor, or NEO Surveyor, is part of an increasing interest in planetary defense, an effort that aims to discover objects that could come dangerously close to Earth. Asteroids and comets that come within 30 million miles are known as near-Earth objects, or NEOs.

“We think there are about 25,000 NEOs large enough to wipe out an area like Southern California,” said project leader Amy Mainzer of the University of Arizona. “Once they get bigger than about 450 feet in diameter, they can cause severe regional damage. We want to find these, and as many smaller ones as possible.”

The NEO Surveyor would be equipped with heat-sensitive cameras capable of taking more sensitive readings than those possible from telescopes on Earth. By looking at infrared data, the space telescope would be able to detect objects, track their positions, and calculate their sizes.

“Earth-approaching asteroids and comets are warmed by the sun, and they give off heat that the NEO Surveyor mission will be able to pick up,” Mainzer said. “Even asteroids as dark as a chunk of coal won’t be able to hide from our infrared eyes.”

NASA has approved the NEO Surveyor for the next phase of development, moving the space telescope from the concept stage to the design stage, where details of its design and hardware will be worked out. If all goes according to plan, the telescope would be launched in the first half of 2026.

The telescope should be able to start protecting Earth within its first 10 years in space, according to Michael Kelley, NEO Surveyor program scientist at NASA headquarters. “NEO Surveyor will have the capability to rapidly accelerate the rate at which NASA is able to discover asteroids and comets that could pose a hazard to the Earth, and it is being designed to discover 90 percent of asteroids 140 meters in size or larger within a decade of being launched,” Kelley said.

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