In a test that put the infrared Near Earth Object camera in conditions mimicking the temperatures and pressures of deep space, the unit performed as designed, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., reported Tuesday.
In addition to detecting and tracking asteroids and comets, the sensor could be a vital component for NASA's recently announced initiative to develop the first-ever mission to identify, capture and relocate an asteroid closer to Earth for future exploration by astronauts, NASA officials said.
"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," said Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office in Washington.
Infrared sensors can give a better idea of the size and makeup of an asteroid than optical telescopes, researchers said.
"Infrared sensors are a powerful tool for discovering, cataloging and understanding the asteroid population," JPL researchers Amy Mainzer said. "When you observe a space rock with infrared, you are seeing its thermal emissions, which can better define the asteroid's size, as well as tell you something about composition."
Once launched, the proposed space telescope carrying NEOcam could observe the comings and goings of near-Earth objects every day without the impediments of cloud cover and daylight, researchers said.