Facts Worth Sharing
- NEOWISE is a NASA space telescope that detects, tracks and studies near-Earth asteroids.
- The threat from asteroid impacts is small, but real—and preventable. Missions like NEOWISE are essential to help us understand how to stop dangerous asteroids.
- NEOWISE originally launched as the WISE astrophysics mission in 2009. The telescope's orbit is degrading and the future of NASA's successor telescope, NEO Surveyor, remains uncertain until it receives the proper funding for a 2025 launch.
Why We Need NEOWISE
In order to stop asteroids from hitting Earth, we must find, track, and study them. Because near-Earth asteroids reflect very little light, they can be hard to spot against the darkness of space. Fortunately, there's another way: Asteroids heat up in the Sun and radiate that heat back into space, making them glow in infrared light. Space telescopes—particularly, space telescopes that can see infrared light—are ideal asteroid-hunting tools.
NEOWISE, NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, orbits the Earth and sweeps the sky looking for asteroids. As of early 2021 it has surveyed the entire sky 15 times, observing roughly 40,000 solar system objects, including 1,200 near-Earth asteroids. These observations help us understand the different sizes and types of near-Earth asteroids, their trajectories through the solar system, and what to do if we find one on course to hit Earth.
NEOWISE is the only space mission currently dedicated to planetary defense, yet it was never built explicitly for that purpose. It originally launched as an astrophysics mission called WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. WISE's job was to scan the sky for the nearest and coolest stars, the most luminous galaxies in the universe, and asteroids.
The telescope and its 4 infrared detectors were kept chilled inside a tank with frozen hydrogen-filled walls to prevent WISE from detecting its own heat. The hydrogen supply ran out as expected in 2010, rendering two of WISE's four detectors useless. After a 30-month hibernation, NASA reactivated the spacecraft as NEOWISE in 2013 and gave it its current mission to study near-Earth objects.
Atmospheric drag is slowly shifting NEOWISE's orbit to the point where it will be unable to make observations without sunlight or reflected Earth light entering the telescope. A replacement telescope called NEO Surveyor is in the works, but its future remains uncertain until it receives the proper funding for a 2025 launch.
How NEOWISE Works
NEOWISE is essentially a 40-centimeter-diameter telescope with four infrared detectors, two of which are still functional without the spacecraft's supply of frozen hydrogen ran out. NEOWISE is relatively small and compact, measuring less than 3 meters along its longest axis.
NEOWISE orbits the Earth at about 480 kilometers (300 miles), slightly higher than the International Space Station. It orbits Earth pole-pole along the planet's terminator, the dividing line between day and night. This allows it to say in continual sunlight with its solar arrays face-on to the Sun and the telescope barrel pointing away into space. As atmospheric drag alters its orbit, it will eventually drift into a position where it will eventually be unable to observe the sky without sunlight or reflected Earth light entering the telescope. This will effectively end its mission.
How You Can Support NEOWISE
Planetary defense is a team sport that requires international cooperation. Space missions like NEOWISE are dependent upon sustained public support from people like you. You know your audience best; we've got tools to help.
Tell the World
Spread the Facts Worth Sharing at the top of this article on social media
Send this page to others using the short URL planetary.org/neowise
Share pictures of meteors and tell people how we can defend Earth from dangerous asteroids and comets
Find out how The Planetary Society works to prevent Earth from being hit by dangerous asteroids
Stay up to date on NEOWISE and other missions by signing up for The Downlink, our weekly newsletter
- Learn about NEO Surveyor, NASA's upcoming NEOWISE replacement
Ready to take your next steps as a space advocate? Become a member and find out how you can take action in your community and government.
NEOWISE in Recent Articles, Newsletters, and Podcasts
The United Arab Emirates is headed for Mars as comet NEOWISE speeds back to the outer reaches of the solar system, and three white papers address the future of planetary science and defense.
The National Geographic Channel’s “Mars” miniseries has begun. Mat Kaplan attended a kickoff for the ambitious docudrama last summer. You’ll hear from series technical advisor Bobby Braun, author of “The Martian” Andy Weir, Cosmos creator Ann Druyan and more.
Amateur image processor Judy Schmidt explains the process of creating gorgeous views of the cosmos from infrared data from the WISE telescope.