NASA announced on Friday that it has approved a new infrared space telescope called the Near-Earth Object Surveyor or NEO Surveyor. The telescope moves to the next step of mission deployment at the JPL after a successful review moved the project past the preliminary design phase. NEO Surveyor was a mission proposed to help discover and characterize near-earth objects that could be potentially hazardous to the Earth.
NASA defines a near-Earth object as an asteroid or comet that approaches within 1.3 astronomical units of the sun. While that is a vast distance, on a cosmic scale, it’s very close. NASA has approved the NEO-Surveyor project to move forward into Preliminary Design, also known as Key Decision Point-B. It’s an infrared space telescope designed to improve NASA’s planetary defense efforts by improving the ability to discover and characterize most potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that will pass within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit.
NASA has been directed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act of 2005 to discover 90 percent of near-Earth objects larger than 459 feet in size. The agency is working to achieve that goal and has found approximately 40 percent of all near-Earth asteroids within the size range. The space agency says that discovering, characterizing, and tracking potentially hazardous NEOs as early as possible is crucial to ensure the deflection or other preparations for impact mitigation can be accomplished.
NASA also plans to test one deflection technology known as the kinetic impactor with its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission the launch later this year. NASA says there are no known impact threats to Earth for the next century, but unpredicted impacts by unknown near-Earth objects do pose a hazard to Earth. One excellent example happened in 2013 in Russia and is known as the Chelyabinsk event. NEO Surveyor will use sensors operating in infrared wavelength to help discover objects more quickly, including those that approach the Earth during the day from closer to the direction of the sun.