MEDIA RELATIONS OFFICE
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
PASADENA, CALIF. 91109. TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011
Contact: Jane Platt (818) 354-0880
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 21, 1999
ASTEROID HUNTERS BRING OLDIE-BUT-GOODIE INTO NEW AGE
NASA astronomers searching for asteroids headed toward Earth
are expanding their sky-watching repertoire by adding high-tech,
computerized electronic upgrades to the classic 1.2-meter-
diameter (48-inch) Oschin telescope atop Palomar Mountain near
San Diego, California.
Right now, NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) system
uses a fully automated charge-coupled device (CCD) camera mounted
on a 1-meter-diameter (39-inch) telescope atop Mt. Haleakela on
Maui, HI. The U.S. Air Force operates the telescope.
NEAT scientists will computerize the pointing system of the
1.2-meter (48-inch) Oschin telescope, which currently uses a
human operator exclusively, and replace photographic plates with
a modern electronic camera. The refurbished telescope will
enable them to peer deeper into the sky than they can from
Haleakela - they'll see 20 percent farther, and their field of
view will be 10 times wider.
"Imagine watching the Super Bowl on your 25-inch TV and
then switching to an 80-inch giant screen TV," said Dr. Steven
Pravdo, NEAT project manager and co-investigator. "But in this
case, it's even better than the TV analogy because, with the
wider field, we'll see many more asteroids in each picture -
those that would be on the 'sidelines' of other telescopes."
The NEAT-Oschin alliance got a test run on June 9 and 10,
when Pravdo and two other JPL astronomers, Dr. David Rabinowitz
and Jeffrey Schroeder, took the NEAT camera to the Oschin
telescope. They obtained the first-ever electronic images from
that venerable sky eye.
"This experiment proved that the Oschin telescope will be a
powerful tool in our hunt for near-Earth objects," Pravdo said.
"We'll spruce up this gentle giant and put it to excellent use
helping us find asteroids,"
"For ten years, I've dreamed and mapped out plans for adding
electronic detectors to this telescope," said Eleanor Helin,
principal investigator for NEAT, which has been operating since
December 1995. "We've been able to study only a fraction of the
sky so far, and we've been looking for ways to cover the entire
NASA's goal is to find all asteroids larger than 1 kilometer
(0.6 mile) across within 10 years. "This will achieve one-third
of that goal, with the remaining two-thirds filled by the
Haleakela camera and other viewing sites," Helin explained. "The
Oschin telescope at Palomar may become the premier finder of
near-Earth objects in the world."
It's estimated there are 1,000 to 2,000 asteroids larger
than 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) that approach within 48 million
kilometers (30 million miles) of Earth. Less than 20 percent
have been detected so far. Although the vast majority are
harmless and will never pose a threat to Earth, scientists want
to keep track of the tiny percentage whose orbits could
eventually put them on a collision course with Earth.
The Oschin telescope, operated by the California Institute
of Technology, Pasadena, CA, has served as a world-class
telescope since it was built in 1949. Helin used the telescope
to discover near-Earth asteroids and comets from the late 1970s
to the early 1990s. The instrument is currently completing the
second of two sky surveys that serve as a resource to astronomers
worldwide. The Oschin telescope has done yeoman's duty for
astronomers through the years, but it has been surpassed in many
ways by newer, more advanced telescopes. Nonetheless, it remains
the telescope with the largest field of view.
NASA will fund the Oschin upgrade, estimated to cost
$300,000 to $500,000, and Caltech will provide the use of the
facility and the infrastructure. Within about two years,
astrophysicists from Yale University in New Haven, CT, may
provide further high-tech upgrades to maximize the potential of
the Palomar telescope.
Images gathered by NEAT using the Oschin telescope, along
with general information on NEAT, are available at the following
Information on the Palomar Observatory is available at:
The NEAT project is managed by JPL for NASA's Office of
Space Science, Washington, DC. JPL is a division of Caltech.