WISE Discovers 95 New Near-Earth Asteroids

Astronomers using the Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE) have detected up 25,000 new asteroids, 95 of which are considered "Near-Earth Objects."

It's WISE to know your neighborhood, especially when countless pieces of rock are flying around.

Millions of tiny meteors bombard the Earth every day, but burn up in the atmosphere long before they can cause anything other than a pretty light in the sky. One day, however, we may get hit by the "the big one" that might destroy a city, or worse. That's why I'm pretty glad that astronomers have detected up 25,000 new asteroids, 95 of which are considered "near Earth asteroids."

"Near Earth" for astronomers means 30 million miles away, almost a third of the way to the Sun, yet a hair's breadth in terms of the size of our solar system. There's no doomsday threat just yet.

These asteroids have all been discovered as part of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, a space telescope designed to survey the entire sky in the infrared. Asteroids glow in the infrared because they are warm, and thus easier to detect in this way than hoping to catch reflected light from the sun.

Asteroids aren't just important because of their potential threat to life on Earth. Asteroids also contain some key elements for life on Earth to have begun, such as water and amino acids. The history of the solar system, as well as life itself, may be trapped in the myriad of rocks that silently orbit the Sun.

Near Earth asteroids are also potential targets for human exploration, as outlined in the latest space policy speech by Obama, and as recommended as one path of exploration by the Augustine Commission. In addition to better understanding a potential foe, these asteroids may be mined, or serve as a proving ground for space technology bound for Mars. Having nearly 100 more possible targets is certainly a good thing.

In any case, WISE will continue to make such discoveries as it starts its survey mode once again around the whole sky. Its discoveries may include some of the most distant and fascinating galaxies, but it's also good to know your neighborhood.

Image: The red dot in the center is the first near Earth asteroid discovered by WISE in January. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA