Asteroid search efforts got a boost from a new, improved camera installed this week for NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Tracking system on the 1.2-meter (48-inch) Oschin telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, Calif.
The camera has a new three-eyed design with three lenses. It can provide three times more data and survey 1.5 times more sky than the present NEAT camera that operates currently at the Maui Space Surveillance Site's 1.2-meter (48-inch) telescope in Hawaii.
"The new camera has the flexibility to do a wide and shallow sky survey, or one not-so-wide but deeper," said Dr. Steven Pravdo, NEAT project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We plan to do more deep observing, so that we can see as many objects as possible." The asteroid observers will be able to take panoramic views of the sky with the three camera eyes or to take a deep exposure showing many faint objects in a narrow swath.
The whole control system on the Oschin telescope was upgraded to a computer-controlled system. The old manual system pointed to only 10 positions each night, but the camera now needs to point to different positions 1,000 times a night. The new system captures about 3.75 square degrees of the sky per image, hundreds of square degrees per night, and most of the accessible sky each month.
The NEAT team can operate the telescope from their desks at JPL, as though the camera were a spacecraft.
The new NEAT camera takes pictures with 48 million pixels, three times more than the system it replaced, and it can see fainter objects. The Palomar staff, headed by Superintendent Bob Thicksten, has helped with the improvements. Palomar Observatory is a facility of the California Institute of Technology.
"This will be a new lease on life for a very famous survey telescope, which conducted the first comprehensive survey of the northern skies in the 1950s and which is now targeting some exciting astronomical goals - searching for near-Earth asteroids and examining supernovae and their role in determining the fate of the cosmos," said Richard Ellis, the director of Palomar Observatory.
The new camera's installation closes the era of using photographic plates, and marks the rebirth of Palomar Observatory's Oschin telescope in the electronic age. "It has been a dream 20 years in the making," says NEAT's principal investigator Eleanor Helin, who has been discovering asteroids from Palomar's two wide-field telescopes since the early days of near-Earth object search.
This new camera system will continue NASA's effort to find 90 percent of all large, near-Earth asteroids by 2010. "We installed the camera on April 9th, and hope to get results in the next few days," Pravdo said.
Using the data taken by the NEAT camera, the Nearby Supernova Factory project by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will find exploded stars in nearby galaxies. "The same data we use to find objects close to Earth, they will use to find objects very far away," said Pravdo.
The Near Earth Asteroid Tracking System is managed for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.
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