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


Finding Asteroids Before They Find Us


Infrared light can be used both to tell temperature and find warm objects that don't reflect much visible light, like asteroids.  The visible light image on the left shows light reflecting off the person and the coffee cups, but the infrared image on the right reveals the heat that both emit. Where the infrared light is brighter, the temperature of the person is warmer. Image credit: JPL/Caltech.

NEOCam consists of a single scientific instrument: a 50 cm diameter telescope operating at two heat-sensing infrared wavelengths that are capable of detecting even the dark asteroids that are hardest to find. 

After launch, NEOCam will carry out a four year baseline survey to find 2/3 of the near-Earth objects larger than 140 m (large enough to cause major regional damage in the event of an Earth impact).  By using two heat-sensitive infrared imaging channels, NEOCam can also make accurate measurements of NEO sizes and can gain valuable information about their composition, shapes, rotational states, and orbits. 

NEOCam employs an innovative observation strategy to independently discover new asteroids and comets and determine their orbits with enough accuracy to allow them to be found again.  In four years of survey operation, NEOCam is designed to make significant progress toward meeting the U.S. Congress's mandate to NASA to find 90% of all NEOs larger than 140 m in diameter. 

Like NASA's WISE mission (which was delivered on cost and on schedule according to the March, 2011 GAO report), NEOCam will be built and tested by competitively-selected industrial contractors in order to ensure the lowest cost and highest value to taxpayers.  Led by the Principal Investigator, a small team at JPL will provide overall project systems engineering and will manage the contracts for the spacecraft bus, payload, and science data processing.  The PI is supported by the science team. Science leadership is integrally involved at every stage of NEOCam's development, from requirements definition, design, fabrication, and testing to launch, in-orbit checkout, flight operations, and data analysis, ensuring that the instrument is optimized to meet the mission's scientific objectives.

History and Status

NEOCam was first proposed to NASA's Discovery mission call for proposals in 2006, and again in 2010.  Discovery missions are medium-sized NASA science missions, and they are carefully vetted after intense competition and peer review.  In 2010, the mission was selected by NASA for technology development to begin work on the electronic detectors that will seek out new asteroids and comets.  The project is now making and testing new detectors that meet the rigorous requirements of spaceflight.  The team plans to repropose NEOCam to NASA's next call for Discovery proposals, which is currently anticipated in 2015.

In 2010, the National Research Council issued a report "Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth-Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies" which found that a space-based infrared survey telescope could rapidly discover asteroids that pose a hazard to Earth and could address the 2005 Congressionally mandated "George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act (PDF)".