UArizona professor tapped by NASA to lead Near-Earth Object tracking project

A University of Arizona professor has been appointed by NASA to lead a project that will track Near-Earth Objects.

Dr. Amy Mainzer is a Professor of Planetary Sciences at UArizona. She says she has always wanted to work on space, so this project that she has been appointed to lead is a dream come true.

"This is a really big deal because basically, we have the technology now to go out there," said Dr. Mainzer.

Asteroids may not be high on everyone's list of threat, but it's something scientists like Dr. Mainzer wants to get ahead of.

"The whole point of this project is to basically go out and look and see what is out there in our solar neighborhood. To see if there are any asteroids of comets that could potentially be heading our way that are large enough to cause any real damage," said Dr. Mainzer, who is leading a team building the Near-earth Object Surveyor Space Telescope, also known as the NEO Surveyor.

The plan for the NEO Surveyor is to send it into space, past the orbit of our moon.

"It's going to sit out there, and then, we'll just patrol back and forth, searching the sky for anything that moves. Will be using heat-sensitive detectors, so in other words ,we'll be looking for the faint heat that these asteroids emit," said Dr. Mainzer.

Although NASA has another mission, called NEOWISE, that involves a telescope in space, Dr. Mainzer says this mission is different.

"We've seen a such a small number of Near-Earth Objects, roughly about 1,000 or 2,000 or so, but we know that there are 10s, or even hundreds of thousands more out there," said Dr. Mainzer. "That is what the annual survey was designed to do. It is really going to go and mop up a large fraction of the near-Earth asteroids and comets that are big enough to cause severe regional damage."

Dr. Mainzer says she hopes to never find an asteroid or comet close to Earth, but she has a plan in case it does happen.

"We want to make sure we're going to find out where it's going to go, so that we have as much time as possible to plan any mitigation we might have to should we find something that is headed our way, so we're going to do our very best to get out there and do a really good look," said Dr. Mainzer.

Dr. Mainzer says they started what's called the preliminary design phase. The surveyor is expected to launch in early 2026.

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