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Artist illustration of NASA s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) in its orbit around Earth. NASA Artist illustration of NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) in its orbit around Earth. NASA

NASA spacecraft to be revived as asteroid hunter

Sen— A NASA spacecraft will be brought out of hibernation in September to search for potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs) and asteroids which could be suitable for an exploration mission.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), which has been in hibernation since completing its primary mission in February 2011, will be tasked with discovering and characterizing space rocks orbiting within 28 million miles (45 million km) from Earth's orbit of the Sun.

NASA believes the WISE probe will discover about 150 previously unknown NEOs as well as characterizing the size and properties of about 2,000 known NEOs. The new mission is set to last for 3 years.

One of the objectives of the new mission will be to find candidates for NASA's recently announced plan to capture an asteroid and bring it into orbit around the Moon. The asteroid capture initiative is a part of the larger goal of landing humans on an asteroid by 2025. Once within the Moon's orbit NASA would use its Orion spacecraft to carry four astronauts to land on and explore the space rock.

The WISE telescope was launched in December 2009. During its primary mission, which ran from January 2010 until February 2011, it scanned the sky in infrared light looking for heat sources from asteroids, stars and galaxies. As part of its primary mission it completed the NEOWISE project -- the most comprehensive survey to date of NEOs.

"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. 

NEOWISE observed about 158,000 space rocks out of about 600,000 known objects. The heat-seeking probe found 21 comets, more than 34,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and 135 near-Earth objects.

Lindley Johnson, NEOWISE program executive, said: "The data collected by NEOWISE two years ago have proven to be a gold mine for the discovery and characterization of the NEO population. It is important that we accumulate as much of this type of data as possible while the WISE spacecraft remains a viable asset." 

The WISE mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. NASA has released this video of its asteroid mission concept:

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