NASA is working on an infrared space telescope called Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) that could very well save humanity. Its goal is to spot dangerous near-Earth objects which could collide with our planet.
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When will the next collision happen?
According to NASA, the risk of such collisions is high. “The question is, when is the next one going to happen on a human time scale as well as a geological time scale?” told Quartz Amy Mainzer, a scientist at CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the principal investigator for the NEOCam project. Maizer first proposed NEOCam back in 2005 and has been refining the camera for the last 14 years.
According to Quartz, in 2005, Congress passed a law requiring NASA to find 90% of the near-Earth objects larger than 140 meters (460 ft) in diameter. The space agency was given a deadline of 2020, one it simply won’t make. That is where NEOCam comes into play.
“I don’t lose sleep over the risk of an undiscovered asteroid impacting the Earth because the chances are small, but they are not zero,” told Quartz MIT planetary scientist Richard Binzel, who is not part of the NEOCam team. “We have the capability, the adult responsibility, to simply know what’s out there. And NEOCam is basically ready to go.”
Time is of the essence
Time is of the essence here as a space probe called IMAP will launch in 2024 heading for an orbit that is also suitable for NEOCam. Asteroid researchers believe this is the best opportunity to launch NEOCam. The problem is getting the approval and funding soon enough to make the deadline.
Researchers also plan to get near-Earth object data from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). The telescope will begin a 10-year survey of the night sky and is expected the get 75% of near-Earth objects 140 meters across or larger.
However, to get to the 90% Congress mandated target space-based infrared observations will be required as only they can estimate the size of an asteroid. This is the kind of data that NEOCam produces, and once the LSST starts its mission, NEOCam will be more important than ever.
Back in January 2017, NEOCam was funded for an additional year. Time will tell if the project will be able to fulfill its true potential.