Tag Archives: wise

Questions raised about NEOWISE asteroid data analysis

A computer entrepreneur has raised questions about the data analysis used by the scientists in charge of NASA’s NEOWISE space telescope (formerly called the Wide-field Infrared Space Telescope, or WISE).

Myhrvold, a former chief technologist for Microsoft, founded the patent-buying firm Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Washington, in 2000; on the side, he pursues interests ranging from modernist cuisine to palaeontology. A few years ago, he began exploring ways to detect dangerous space rocks. He soon argued3 that the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a ground-based telescope being built in Chile, would have the capacity to find nearly all the same asteroids as NASA’s proposed successor to NEOWISE, called NEOCam.

That turned his attention to how asteroids could be studied in space, and to the NEOWISE data. “I thought, this will be great, maybe we’ll be able to find some new and interesting things in here,” he says. But Myhrvold soon became frustrated with the quality and analysis of the data. He posted a critical preprint on arXiv in May 2016, and the peer-review game was on.

His first peer-reviewed critique was published in Icarus in March4. In it, he explored the mathematics of how asteroids radiate heat, and said that the NEOWISE team should have accounted for such effects more thoroughly in its work.

The latest paper1 holds the bulk of the NEOWISE critique. Among other things, Myhrvold argues that the NEOWISE team applied many different modelling techniques to many different combinations of data to achieve its final results. He also criticizes the choice to include previously published data on the diameter of certain asteroids in the data set, rather than using NEOWISE measurements — which, though less precise, are at least consistent with the rest of the database. Such choices undermine the statistical rigour of the database, he says.

Alan Harris, a planetary scientist with the consulting firm MoreData! in La Cañada Flintridge, California, was one of the paper’s reviewers. “In my opinion, it has important things to say,” he says. “It is my hope that the scientific community will read the paper and pay attention to the analysis Myhrvold has presented, as he has raised a number of significant issues.”

The disagreement involves the NEOWISE team’s estimate of asteroid sizes, based on the infrared data. Myhrvoid questions their estimates.

More details about the clashes between Myhrvoid and the NEOWISE science team over the past two years can be found here. The NASA scientists do not come off well. They appear to be very defensive, acting to stonewall any review of their work. Repeatedly they attempted to defy Myhrvoid’s FOIA requests (only made when they refused to release their raw data), including redacting significant information for no justifiable reason.

I have really only one question: Does the behavior of these NASA planetary scientists sound familiar? To me it does, and what it reminds me of speaks very badly for the science being done in the NEOWISE mission at NASA.

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The surface properties of 122 asteroids revealed

Using archive data produced by the Wide-field Infrared Explorer telescope (WISE, renamed NEOWISE) astronomers have been able to estimate the surface properties of 122 small asteroids located in the asteroid belt.

“Using archived data from the NEOWISE mission and our previously derived shape models, we were able to create highly detailed thermophysical models of 122 main belt asteroids,” said Hanuš, lead author of the paper. “We now have a better idea of the properties of the surface regolith and show that small asteroids, as well as fast rotating asteroids, have little, if any, dust covering their surfaces.” (Regolith is the term for the broken rocks and dust on the surface.)

It could be difficult for fast-rotating asteroids to retain very fine regolith grains because their low gravity and high spin rates tend to fling small particles off their surfaces and into space. Also, it could be that fast-rotating asteroids do not experience large temperature changes because the sun’s rays are more rapidly distributed across their surfaces. That would reduce or prevent the thermal cracking of an asteroid’s surface material that could cause the generation of fine grains of regolith. [emphasis mine]

If this conclusion holds, it means that mining these asteroids might be much easier. Dust can be a big problem, as it can clog up equipment and interfere with operations. It also acts to hide the underlying material, making it harder to find the good stuff.

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Astronomers find unexpected comets in outer reaches of solar system

Using data from the WISE space telescope, astronomers have found that there are more comets lurking in the far reaches of the solar system than they had predicted.

Scientists found that there are about seven times more long-period comets measuring at least 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) across than had been predicted previously. They also found that long-period comets are on average up to twice as large as “Jupiter family comets,” whose orbits are shaped by Jupiter’s gravity and have periods of less than 20 years. Researchers also observed that in eight months, three to five times as many long-period comets passed by the Sun than had been predicted.

These are comets whose orbits never allow them to come close to the inner solar system, which allows them to remain puffy and large.

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More near Earth objects found by WISE

NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE) has released its third year of survey data, including the discovery of 97 previously unknown objects.

Of those, 28 were near-Earth objects, 64 were main belt asteroids and five were comets. The spacecraft has now characterized a total of 693 near-Earth objects since the mission was re-started in December 2013.

For reasons that baffle me, NASA added “Near-Earth Object” to the telescope’s name when they restarted the mission, making its official name now NEOWISE.

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WISE completes another year of asteroid hunting

After being mothballed in space and then reactivated, NASA’s WISE infrared telescope (renamed NEOWISE for no good reason) has now completed its second year of observations, looking for near-Earth objects (NEOs).

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission has released its second year of survey data. The spacecraft has now characterized a total of 439 NEOs since the mission was re-started in December 2013. Of these, 72 were new discoveries. Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) are comets and asteroids that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of the giant planets in our solar system into orbits that allow them to enter Earth’s neighborhood. Eight of the objects discovered in the past year have been classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), based on their size and how closely their orbits approach Earth. [emphasis mine]

Unfortunately, the press release does not provide any details about those eight potentially hazardous asteroids.

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No obvious evidence of advanced civilizations in 100,000 galaxies

A search for evidence of advanced civilizations in the WISE orbiting telescope database has come up mostly empty.

Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson proposed in the 1960s that advanced alien civilizations beyond Earth could be detected by the telltale evidence of their mid-infrared emissions. It was not until space-based telescopes like the WISE satellite that it became possible to make sensitive measurements of this radiation emitted by objects in space.

Roger Griffith, a postbaccalaureate researcher at Penn State and the lead author of the paper, scoured almost the entire catalog of the WISE satellite’s detections — nearly 100 million entries — for objects consistent with galaxies emitting too much mid-infrared radiation. He then individually examined and categorized around 100,000 of the most promising galaxy images. Wright reports, “We found about 50 galaxies that have unusually high levels of mid-infrared radiation. Our follow-up studies of those galaxies may reveal if the origin of their radiation results from natural astronomical processes, or if it could indicate the presence of a highly advanced civilization.”

Though the spin of the article is that no clear evidence of alien civilizations was found, I am most intrigued by those 50 candidate galaxies.

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WISE’s survey of the sky in infrared has now shown that there is no large planet X orbiting beyond Pluto.

WISE’s survey of the sky in infrared has now shown that there is no large planet X orbiting beyond Pluto.

This recent study, which involved an examination of WISE data covering the entire sky in infrared light, found no object the size of Saturn or larger exists out to a distance of 10,000 astronomical units (au), and no object larger than Jupiter exists out to 26,000 au. One astronomical unit equals 93 million miles. Earth is 1 au, and Pluto about 40 au, from the sun. “The outer solar system probably does not contain a large gas giant planet, or a small, companion star,” said Kevin Luhman of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, University Park, Pa., author of a paper in the Astrophysical Journal describing the results.

The theory, popular among planetary scientists and journalists, is that this theorized distant planet would periodically disturb the orbits of comets in the Oort Cloud, sending them raining down on Earth and thus cause the periodic extinction events found in the paleontological record. It was a cute theory, but based on little data. Now we have the data, and no such planet exists.

The data has found a lot of previously unknown nearby stars and brown dwarfs, which is significant in that they are close and can be studied more easily.

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WISE, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer, sent back its first images in almost three years this week.

Back from the dead: WISE sent back its first images in almost three years this week.

The Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft, or NEOWISE, has taken its first set of test images since being reactivated in September after a 31-month-long hibernation, NASA officials announced today (Dec. 19). The space agency wants NEOWISE to resume its hunt for potentially dangerous asteroids, some of which could be promising targets for future human exploration.

We should note that NASA had shut down this functional space telescope even though the cost to use it to hunt asteroids would be relatively little. Cost was cited as the reason, but I suspect it was a combination of the vast overruns for the James Webb Space Telescope and the Obama administration’s puzzling hostility to science at NASA.

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NASA will reactivate the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) next month to use it to look for more near Earth asteroids.

NASA will reactivate the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) next month to use it to look for more near Earth asteroids.

This decision raises two thoughts.

  • Why did they shut it down in the first place if it was still viable and could still do important research? If the cost wasn’t worth the benefit then, how has this equation changed now? And if the cost was worth the benefit, it then was foolish to shut it down in the first place. Though it costs money to operate these things, it is always cheaper to keep something running than to build something new. The press announcement above doesn’t really address these issues, and I wish it did.
  • I wonder if this decision is somehow related to the end of the Kepler mission. With Kepler out of service, maybe NASA decided to shift the funds to run that telescope over to WISE. They do not say, but the timing is interesting. This decision could be a hint that Kepler doesn’t really have another mission it can fulfill, and thus the money to run it has already been put elsewhere.
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An analysis of the survey data produced by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has uncovered literally millions of black hole candidates as well as a thousand of the brightest galaxies yet found.

An analysis of the survey data produced by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has uncovered literally millions of black hole candidates as well as a thousand of the brightest galaxies yet found.

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Based on further analysis of the data from WISE, the infrared space telescope, astronomers have now made a better estimate of the population of potentially hazardous asteroids

Based on further analysis of the data from WISE, the infrared space telescope, astronomers have now made a better estimate of the population of potentially hazardous asteroids.

Potentially hazardous asteroids, or PHAs, are a subset of the larger group of near-Earth asteroids. The PHAs have the closest orbits to Earth’s, coming within five million miles (about eight million kilometers), and they are big enough to survive passing through Earth’s atmosphere and cause damage on a regional, or greater, scale.

The new results come from the asteroid-hunting portion of the WISE mission, called NEOWISE. The project sampled 107 PHAs to make predictions about the entire population as a whole. Findings indicate there are roughly 4,700 PHAs, plus or minus 1,500, with diameters larger than 330 feet (about 100 meters). So far, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of these objects have been found.

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NASA has identified ninety percent of the largest near-Earth asteroids

Data from the infrared telescope WISE has now identified ninety percent of the largest near-Earth asteroids.

NASA researchers also downgraded their estimate of the number of medium-sized asteroids, saying there are 44 percent fewer than previously believed. The downside is that scientists have yet to find many of these mid-sized asteroids, which could destroy a metropolitan city.

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Astronomers identify Earth’s first Trojan asteroid

Astronomers have spotted the first Trojan asteroid to the Earth.

The asteroid is roughly 1,000 feet (300 meters) in diameter. It has an unusual orbit that traces a complex motion near a stable point in the plane of Earth’s orbit, although the asteroid also moves above and below the plane. The object is about 50 million miles (80 million kilometers) from Earth. The asteroid’s orbit is well-defined and for at least the next 100 years, it will not come closer to Earth than 15 million miles (24 million kilometers).

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The WISE space telescope results go online

The WISE infrared space telescope results are now online, for anyone to search.

Data from the first 57 percent of the sky surveyed is accessible through an online public archive. The complete survey, with improved data processing, will be made available in the spring of 2012. A predecessor to WISE, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), served a similar role about 25 years ago, and those data are still valuable to astronomers today. Likewise, the WISE legacy is expected to endure for decades.

You can hunt for new asteroids, comets, and galaxies here, with instructions on how to do it here.

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