Currently Known NEO's: 3 Estimated Total NEO's: 10


Finding Asteroids Before They Find Us

Asteroid Discovery

The infrared sky has fewer stars. The red dot at the center of this image is the first near-Earth asteroid discovered by NEOWISE. This particular asteroid, called 2010 AB78, is roughly one kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter, and is currently about 158 million kilometers (98 million miles) away from Earth. The image shows three infrared wavelengths, with red representing the longest wavelength of 12 microns, and green and blue showing 4.6- and 3.4-micron light, respectively. The asteroid appears redder than the rest of the background stars because it is cooler and emits most of its light at longer infrared wavelengths. In visible light, this space rock is very faint and difficult to see.  At visible wavelengths, the sky is blazing with stars, but at the thermal infrared wavelengths NEOCam will use, the stars are often much dimmer than the asteroids, making the asteroids easier to find.  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA  

When a new asteroid is first detected, astronomers don't know what kind of orbit it has, or how far away it is.  Astronomers can report its position in the sky to the Minor Planet Center (MPC), which is sanctioned by the International Astronomical Union. There, astronomers use advanced computer programs to determine the object's orbit. 

Sometimes, there are too few observations to determine the orbit accurately. When this happens, the worldwide community of amateur and professional astronomers can step up to the plate. Telescopes - from large, million dollar scientific marvels to smaller backyard setups - can be trained on the sky to acquire more observations of the object.  Astronomers then send these observations to the Minor Planet Center allowing the orbit to be improved.

The MPC's advanced software can determine if an object may be a threat to Earth. Additionally, NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory Sentry service, and the NEODyS software service independently determine future close approaches and impact probabilities. Over decades, these software packages have been painstakingly developed and meticulously checked for extreme accuracy. 

Just as our team did with NEOWISE, the NEOCam science data processing system will allow us to report observations of all potential asteroid discoveries to the Minor Planet Center soon after the images are collected.  NEOCam will observe each asteroid enough times over a long enough span of time to ensure that the objects can be recovered by other observers at the next possible observing opportunity from the ground. Once the observations are submitted to the Minor Planet Center, impact probabilities for each object will be automatically computed by the Sentry and NEODyS systems.  In the event that a potential impactor is discovered, officials at NASA Headquarters will be immediately notified according to standard procedures already in place.