Since 2011, a $200 million space telescope has been orbiting Earth with most of its electronics off, because its primary mission was complete. But in a few weeks, NASA is going to be waking the satellite from its two-year slumber in the deep cold of space, and putting it to work on a new task: Finding asteroids that we can explore, and perhaps mine.
The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope spent years cataloging and measuring tens of thousands of asteroids in our solar system, including those that could potentially be of harm to Earth. Its contribution to science was impressive, but when the mission concluded, NASA had to shut down nearly all spacecraft systems as the funds needed to run WISE dried up.
Next month the satellite will start scanning the heavens once again, this time on the hunt for near-Earth objects that could be visited on exploration missions. And it will spot potentially dangerous ones, too.
President Obama recently announced new asteroid initiatives for NASA, including a daring plan to snag an asteroid and return it to the Moon for closer examination–although Congress decided it knew science better than NASA and may have barred that mission. Other asteroid plans include missions to find suitable asteroids by private tech means, and then strip-mine them. By re-using older tech like WISE, NASA demonstrates that it has the right spacelegs for asteroid missions.
[Image via NASA. Flickr user: midwestnerd]