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Visible-light telescopes conducting past asteroid surveys may have missed a large population of darker asteroids that WISE is now flushing out of hiding. Most of the asteroids WISE is finding are in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but a fraction of them are different—they're the kind of Earth-approaching asteroids that send shivers all the way down a Brontosaurus' spine.
"WISE has only been in orbit for about three months, but we've already found a handful of asteroids classified as 'potentially hazardous,' including one seen in 1996 but lost until re-observed by WISE. To be named 'potentially hazardous,' an asteroid has to pass within about 5 million miles of Earth's orbit. One of our discoveries will cross Earth's orbit less than 700,000 miles away."
Above: This blink comparison shows why infrared wavelengths are so good for asteroid hunting. It's a patch of sky in the constellation Taurus photographed at two different times by the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope. The two frames are correctly aligned; the objects are moving because they are asteroids. At thermal infrared wavelengths, most of the bright objects in the plane of the solar system are space rocks.
The near-Earth object, designated 2010 AB78, was discovered by WISE Jan. 12. The mission's sophisticated software picked out the moving object against a background of stationary stars. As WISE circled Earth, scanning the sky above, it observed the asteroid several times during a period of one-and-a-half days before the object moved beyond its view. Researchers then used the University of Hawaii's 2.2-meter (88-inch) visible-light telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea to follow up and confirm the discovery.
The asteroid is currently about 158 million kilometers (98 million miles) from Earth. It is estimated to be roughly 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter and circles the sun in an elliptical orbit tilted to the plane of our solar system. The object comes as close to the sun as Earth, but because of its tilted orbit, it will not pass very close to Earth for many centuries. This asteroid does not pose any foreseeable impact threat to Earth, but scientists will continue to monitor it.