July 15, 2003
NASA astronomers in pursuit of near-Earth asteroids have already made a discovery with the newly installed Quasar Equatorial Survey, or 'Quest,' camera mounted in mid-April on Palomar Mountain's 1.2-meter (48-inch) Oschin telescope.
"The Quest camera is still undergoing commissioning trials," said Dr. Steven Pravdo, project manager for the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking Project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "But that doesn't mean we can't do some real science in the meantime. What we found was a near-Earth asteroid, estimated to be about 250 meters (820 feet) in size."
The detection of the near-Earth object, 2003 NL7, occurred on the evening of July 8. It has been confirmed by follow-up measurements from three other observatories and subsequently certified by the official clearinghouse of the solar system's smaller inhabitants, the Minor Planet Center. While 2003 NL7 has been labeled a near-Earth asteroid, it is considered non-hazardous, with a 2.97-year orbit of the Sun in which its closest approach to Earth's orbit is about 25.1 million kilometers (15.6 million miles).
The Quest camera is being developed as a multi-purpose instrument by Yale and Indiana universities with Dr. Charles Baltay, chairman of Yale's physics department, as the principal investigator. It is designed for use in detecting and characterizing quasars, near-Earth asteroids, trans-Neptunian objects, supernovas, and a large variety of other astrophysical phenomena, by scientists from Yale, JPL and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The complex camera consists of 112 electronic chips known as charged coupled devices (CCDs) arranged over the Oschin telescope's focal plane. This gives the Quest camera 161-megapixel capability. By comparison, a good store-bought digital camera would probably be in the four-megapixel range.
"When Quest becomes operational, it will be a significant advancement for the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking team," said Dr. Raymond Bambery, the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking Project's principal investigator. "We expect the new camera to increase the efficiency of detection of near-Earth asteroids by some 3 to 4 times that of the camera it replaced. This will make a major contribution to NASA's goal of discovering more than 90 percent of near-Earth objects that are greater that 1 kilometer (.62 mile) in diameter by 2008."
The Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking System is managed by JPL for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. JPL is a division of Caltech. More information on the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking Program is available at http://neat.jpl.nasa.gov/ .
JPL/DC Agle (818) 393-9011