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The new generation of asteroid hunters is here

Hubble space telescope/NASA

A new sensor developed by researchers in upstate New York could help detect asteroids close to Earth. The infrared-light detector is designed to improve the performance of space-based telescopes, and it could increase our ability to see hazardous objects in outer space.

Judy Pipher is a professor of astronomy and one of the team at the University of Rochester that developed the sensor.

She says asteroids aren’t easy to spot because they don’t emit visible light. But, they do emit infrared radiation and that’s what their sensor picks up.

“Some of them are as dark as coal and they don’t reflect anything, so you have to detect them by their emission,” Pipher says. “The sensor itself detects with high efficiency, it has what is a very low, dark current - that means when it looks at something dark and cold it doesn’t give us a signal, and it also has very low noise. Those are all the characteristics you need.”

It might sound like something out of Star Wars, but Pipher says the sensor has the ability to improve our planetary defense, something that has become a hot topic.

“The potentially hazardous objects are something that, by mandate, scientists have to be able to find and characterize and provide the information so that there can be a planetary defense network set up, so that major harm isn’t caused,” she says.

Pipher says the ability for their sensor to work effectively within a fine range and at high temperatures without an active cooling system, is what sets it apart.

Once launched, the space-based telescope fitted with the infrared detectors would be positioned millions of miles out in space; equivalent to four times the distance between Earth and the moon.

Pipher says she hopes to see the sensor on a NASA mission within five years.

The NASA funded NEO-cam (Near Earth Objects-cam) space mission aims to track asteroids as well as searching for favorable destinations for explorations by humans and robotic missions.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail
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