NASA's prolific Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission has returned a treasure trove of observations about asteroids, comets and other celestial objects within Earth's cosmic neighborhood.
Since 2013, when NASA reactivated its WISE observatory a the NEOWISE mission, the infrared space telescope has discovered 114 previously unknown objects, 97 of them in the last year alone, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). That lab oversees the mission from Pasadena, California. The mission has characterized about 693 objects in all, many of them previously known, so far. [In Images: Potentially Dangerous Asteroids]
"NEOWISE is not only discovering previously uncharted asteroids and comets, but it is [also] providing excellent data on many of those already in our catalog," NEOWISE principal investigator Amy Mainzer of JPL said in a statement. "It is also proving to be an invaluable tool in the refining and perfecting of techniques for near-Earth object discovery and characterization by a space-based infrared observatory."
An animation of NEOWISE data collected since 2013 shows the mission's progress. In the graphic, comets appear as yellow squares and asteroids are marked as gray dots. Green dots represent asteroids and comets that approach within 1.3 astronomical units of the sun. One astronomical unit is the distance between the Earth and sun, about 93 million miles (150 million kilometers).
The NEOWISE mission began its life as NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), an infrared space telescope that launched in 2009. That mission ended in 2011, and the observatory was placed in hibernation.
But in September 2013, NASA reactivated WISE to begin the NEOWISE mission, a project specifically aimed at helping scientists seek out and identify potentially hazardous asteroids and comets.