Nasa’s newly reactivated asteroid hunting space telescope has spotted its first potentially hazardous space rock.
The new asteroid is the first discovery by the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) since the spacecraft came out of hibernation last year.
The rock, named 2013 YP139, is approximately 27 million miles away from Earth and is estimated to be 0.4 miles in diameter. It’s infrared signature suggests the asteroid is extremely dark, like a piece of coal.
It has also been classified as a potentially hazardous near Earth object as its orbit suggests it could pose a risk. Nasa believes that the impact of an asteroid any larger than half a mile in diameter could have “worldwide effects”.
The Chelyabinsk meteor which entered Earth’s atmosphere over Russia last year and injured 1,500 people was only 55-65 feet in size.
The 2013 YP139 circles the sun in an elliptical orbit that is tilted to the plane of our solar system.
It is possible that its orbit will bring it as close as 300,000 miles from Earth, slightly more than the distance to the moon.
NEOWISE’s role is to assist NASA’s efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs).
The spacecraft will also help in characterising previously detected asteroids that may now be considered potential targets for future exploration missions.
During its primary mission, which was to scan the entire sky in infrared light, the spacecraft discovered more than 34,000 asteroids in 2010 and early 2011.
It was then placed into hibernation for 31 months after it had completed its primary mission.
Last year it was reactivated to search specifically for near Earth objects.
Some of the objects about which NEOWISE will be collecting data could become candidates for Nasa’s asteroid initiative, which will be the first mission to identify, capture and relocate an asteroid for astronauts to explore.
Nasa hopes that it will help protect Earth and help achieve their goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025.
The observations made by NEOWISE will be sent to the clearing house for solar system bodies to determine the orbit of each asteroid and comet if the object is not known.
Amy Mainzer, the mission’s principal investigator said: “We are delighted to get back to finding and characterising asteroids and comets, especially those that come into Earth’s neighbourhood,”
“With our infrared sensors that detect heat, we can learn about their sizes and reflectiveness.”