NASA exploring possible mission to better track asteroids that threaten Earth

In May said that there were roughly 4,700 potentially hazardous asteroids.

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NASA this week put out a call to garner information about what sorts of technologies it might include in a spacecraft that would look for asteroids that threaten Earth.

Such an asteroid spotting system, which  isn't on the drawing board, would be capable of detecting and tracking asteroids in orbits very similar to Earth's, including Earth-trojan asteroids, NASA said. 

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"Very-Near Earth asteroids" are envisioned as a set of asteroids to be discovered, in an orbit very similar to Earth's. This request solicits information from potential sources for an instrument that could be delivered for flight as soon as 2016, NASA said.

From NASA:  "This instrument might be flown on a US Government or commercially-owned spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit. The instrument would point outward from Earth and must be capable of detecting near-Earth asteroids in very Earth-like orbits, and capable of detecting asteroids of as little as 30m in diameter. Additional factors of interest include the ability to quantify spin rate and calculate the size and shape of detected asteroids. The data generated by the instrument would be delivered to the Minor Planet Center in a form suitable for orbit processing in order to confirm detections and determine the orbits of new asteroids."

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 The instrument development and testing, integration and accommodation, and five years of flight operations and data processing should total no more than $50M (in FY12 dollars) life cycle costs, NASA stated. 

In May said that there were roughly 4,700 potentially hazardous asteroids which it said are a subset of a larger group of near-Earth asteroids but have the closest orbits to Earth's - passing within five million miles (or about eight million kilometers) and are big enough to survive passing through Earth's atmosphere and cause damage on a regional, or greater, scale.

NASA pointed out too that ''potential'' to make close Earth approaches does not mean a PHA will impact the Earth. It only means there is a possibility for such a threat.

The numbers came from asteroid observations made by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, (WISE) satellite which looked at the objects that orbit within 120 million miles of the of the sun into Earth's orbital vicinity, NASA said. WISE scanned the celestial sky twice in infrared light between January 2010 and February 2011, continuously snapping pictures of everything from distant galaxies to near-Earth asteroids and comets.  It has since entered hibernation mode, NASA stated.   The asteroid-hunting portion of the WISE mission called NEOWISE has seem more than 100 thousand asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, in addition to at least 585 near Earth, NASA noted.

NASA said there are roughly 4,700 PHAs, plus or minus 1,500, with diameters larger than 330 feet (about 100 meters). So far, an estimated 20 to 30% of these objects have been found, NASA stated.  Previous estimates of PHAs predicted similar numbers, they were rough approximations, NASA said.

Asteroids have been in the news a lot lately. It has been widely reported that NASA could announce this month a manned project to land on an asteroid in the future.  And in April Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and filmmaker James Cameron said they would bankroll a venture to survey and eventually extract precious metals and rare minerals from asteroids that orbit near Earth. Planetary Resources, based in Bellevue, Wash., initially will focus on developing and selling extremely low-cost robotic spacecraft for surveying missions.

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