NASA is considering re-activating a mothballed space telescope to help find asteroids that could be on a collision course with Earth, according to a senior US space agency official.
Launched in December 2009, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, telescope spent about a year taking pictures for an all-sky map. With its infrared detectors, WISE was able to peer through thick layers of dust and see even relatively dim objects such as cool brown dwarf stars in great detail.
NASA then put WISE to work on another mission looking for asteroids and comets in the solar system. Of particular interest were objects in orbits that pass relatively close to Earth.
WISE found about 150 near-Earth asteroids, including 20 that were potentially hazardous, before funding for the project ran out. The telescope was put into hibernation in February 2011.
NASA is now reviewing options for enhancing its asteroid-hunting efforts including bringing WISE out of hibernation, Lindley Johnson, who oversees the agency's Near-Earth Objects observations program, said this week.
This follows February's explosion of a small asteroid in the skies above Russia and the near-Earth passage of a larger one the same day.
More than 1,500 people were hurt by flying glass and debris after that small asteroid exploded above Chelyabinsk, Russia. The larger asteroid then zipped past Earth closer than the networks of communication satellites that ring the planet.
Together, those events served as a celestial alarm clock, prompting congressional hearings and fresh calls for NASA and other agencies to step up asteroid detection initiatives.