NEO Surveyor will find space rocks, and a simulator to show what happens if it doesn’t
December 27, 2022 Issue #505
Space is big. That’s why we call it “space”
I do love good news: NASA has confirmed its commitment to the Near-Earth Object Surveyor mission, a wonderful project that will look for dangerous asteroids that are extremely difficult if not downright impossible to spot from Earth.
The history of this mission is a roller coaster. It was originally designed as NEOCAM, the Near-Earth Object Camera, a followup to the hugely successful Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. NEOCAM was a great idea, and came close to getting funded, but lost out to some other missions that NASA chose instead. But it did so well in that round of proposals that in 2019 NASA decided it would fund a spacecraft based on the NEOCAM legacy work anyway, called NEO Surveillance Mission.
That is now NEO Surveyor (a better name). Many of the folks involved with NEOCAM — including my friend and asteroid expert Amy Mainzer, who is the Survey Director for the new mission — put together a proposal to NASA for the new mission. That has gone through rigorous review, and passed the critical NASA stage called Key Decision Point C. It’s technical jargon, but the bottom line is at this point NASA is prepared to fund the mission and get it built, launched, and operating!
I wrote about NEO Surveyor when it was still using the old name, but much of the idea is the same. It’s a smallish spacecraft with a 50-centimeter telescope on it. That’s not very big, but in space it’s sensitive enough to do its mission: spot asteroids that get close to Earth. It will be in an unusual orbit: The rocket will place it in the Earth-Sun L1 point, about 1.6 million kilometers away on a line that connects Earth with the Sun. This is inside Earth’s orbit (as opposed to L2, which is outside Earth’s orbit, where JWST is), which is the whole point: It will be able to spot asteroids (and comets) on orbits that are smaller than Earth’s.
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