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LOGAN — NASA has reawakened a defunct space telescope that was designed and built in Utah. It has an important new mission: hunting for asteroids that threaten the Earth.
Ever since finishing its original mission in 2010, the WISE space telescope has been asleep, orbiting the Earth, expected to just burn up in a few years.
But now it's going on patrol for giant space rocks that threaten to devastate the Earth.
Some of the most spectacular images of space ever were taken by the WISE space telescope.
It was launched into orbit four years ago.
The original mission was mapping the universe with infrared cameras. With that mission accomplished in a few months, WISE went to sleep, presumably forever.
That's why, at USU's Space Dynamics Laboratory, news of an orbital wake-up-call is generating lots of excitement.
WISE was designed and built here; a model is proudly on display in the lobby.
"We're extremely happy and delighted that it's been reactivated," said Pedro Sevilla, a WISE payload engineer.
The real wake-up call, for the human race, was last February. A giant fireball exploded in the skies over Siberia. The shockwave caused widespread damage and injured more than 1,000 people.
It renewed worries about much larger asteroids hitting the Earth, the kind of catastrophe that's in Hollywood films.
"I think it's considerable. But it's nothing you should lose sleep over," Sevilla said of the potential danger.
The WISE telescope will lose some sleep. A month ago, NASA woke it up and began chilling it down. It needs to be incredibly cold to work properly; even now, two of its four infrared cameras remain unusable.
"The telescope is too warm," Sevilla said. "But two of the other cameras are short-wave cameras. They can still be used at temperatures of minus 325 degrees Fahrenheit."
The two good cameras have now produced excellent test images, so the hunt is on.
"Congress has mandated NASA to find more than 90 percent of the asteroids that cause a threat to the earth," Sevilla said.
If WISE actually finds a big asteroid on a collision course with Earth, the Utah-made instrument may actually save the planet by prompting defensive action.
"Right now with the current technology i think that would probably mean sending some sort of a probe which would deflect the asteroid years from potentially striking the earth," Sevilla concluded.
NASA has budgeted five million dollars a year for WISE's asteroid hunt. Compared with the cost of putting something new in space, that's a dirt-cheap planetary defense.