Near Earth Object Camera
The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left). (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Teledyne)

An infrared sensor that is being created to track asteroids and comets has passed a critical design test, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said on Monday.

The test was carried out to assess the performance of the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) in an environment that impersonated the temperature and pressure prevailing in deep space. NEOCam will be the main instrument that will be launched aboard the proposed new, space-based asteroid-hunting telescope.

According to NASA, the infrared sensor could play a vital role in its efforts to develop a mission in indentifying, capturing and relocating an asteroid closer to Earth so as to study if for future explorations.

"This sensor represents one of many investments made by NASA's Discovery Program and its Astrophysics Research and Analysis Program in innovative technologies to significantly improve future missions designed to protect Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids," Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office in Washington, said in a statement.

Ever since the meteor blast over Russia happened in February, researchers have been discussing ways to detect and study near-Earth objects that could cause destruction to Earth. Near-Earth objects are asteroids (small rocky bodies that are formed in the warmer inner solar system) and comets (mostly made of water ice with dust particles formed in the cold outer planetary system) that get pulled into orbits by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets which allows them to enter the Earth's neighbourhood.

These near-Earth objects come within 28 million miles of Earth's path around the sun. NASA is proposing to use infrared sensors in telescopes because data collected using optical telescopes could be deceiving. Asteroids do not emit light, but they reflect it. Based on how reflective an object is, a small-sized asteroid could look as a big, dark space rock. Hence, data obtained from optical telescopes could not be accurate.

But, when a space rock is seen through infrared sensors its thermal emissions would become visible which could help better in determining the size of the asteroid as well as its composition, said Amy Mainze who is the principal investigator for NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer.

Once the proposed telescope is launched, it would be located about four times the distance between Earth and the moon. At this position, NEOCam would be able to observe the near-Earth objects that come and go on a daily basis without any obstruction due to cloud cover or daylight.