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WISE brought back into asteroid hunting game

NASA announced in a statement on Wednesday that the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer craft, also known simply as WISE, will be brought out of its current hibernation status and repurposed for asteroid hunting.

“The WISE mission achieved its mission’s goals and as NEOWISE extended the science even further in its survey of asteroids. NASA is now extending that record of success, which will enhance our ability to find potentially hazardous asteroids, and support the new asteroid initiative,” said NASA’s John Grunsfeld in the statement.

The “new asteroid initiative” to which Grunsfeld refers is part of President Obama’s plan to have astronauts on an asteroid by the year 2025. WISE is being restarted because it is particularly well equipped for locating space rocks with its infrared capabilities. Along with categorizing potential candidates for Obama’s asteroid goals, the craft can also help isolate those rocks that pose potential threats to the Earth.

Launched at the end of 2009, WISE was initially utilized as a tool for discovering celestial heat sources such as stars and asteroids. It collected approximately 7,500 images a day until its mission concluded in February 2011. It was also used to aid in the location of near-Earth objects (NEOs) as part of the NEOWISE program. NASA stated that the instrument compiled the most accurate survey of NEOs during its time with NEOWISE, leading to its new role next month as an asteroid hunter.

“It is important that we accumulate as much of this type of data as possible while the WISE spacecraft remains a viable asset,” said Lindley Johnson, program executive for NEOWISE.

Restarting WISE isn’t expected to be too big an ordeal according to the LA Times. They quote NEOWISE principal investigator Amy Mainzer as stating that the first step is to cool WISE down from 200 degrees above absolute zero now that its refridgerants are depleted. Mainzer plans to achieve the cooling process by having WISE turn to stare into the cold darkness of deep space.

“When it looks at the cold background of deep space, most of the heat will radiate away,” said Mainzer, hoping to cool the spacecraft down to 75 degrees above absolute zero. Only two of WISE’s original four channels will continue working without the refridgerants.

Before being placed into hibernation mode in 2011, WISE had collected over 2.7 million images and cataloged some 560 million space objects. NASA estimates that WISE’s telescopes and infrared cameras will locate another 150 unidentified NEOs while characterizing the various properties of 2,000 others during its new mission.