Nasa has made a breakthrough in its quest for a reliable way to spot deadly asteroids before they cause harm on Earth.

A new camera sensor which can scan the sky for near-Earth objects has been tested in space conditions, and could soon be sent to watch for signs of our oncoming doom.

According to the NEOWISE mission, which scanned the entire sky for signs of dangerous bodies, there are more than 34,000 asteroids in the solar system with 134 being classed as "near Earth".


Which is why the development of a new infrared sensor, capable of detecting asteroids within 45 million kilometres of Earth, is so crucial.

The sensor has been built for the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) space craft, the proposed mission which would park a space craft more than four times as far from the Earth as the Moon to hunt for asteroids capable of striking us.

The American space agency currently studies many of the asteroids which are larger than 140 metres wide and classed as 'civilisation killers'. But many remain unfound or not well understood, leading to proposals for the new mission, which would study two-thirds of all asteroids larger than 140 metres inside Earth's orbit.


Above: The Near-Earth Object Camera

Instead of looking for asteroids with visible light - which can result in small, light rocks being mistaken for large, dark ones - the new sensor looks for asteroids with infra-red light.

Ten years in the making, it is designed to be lighter, more reliable and higher in quality than previous sensors, and could be the difference between finding an asteroid in enough time to do something about it, or at least evacuate an area likely to be affected.

Now for the first time it's been tested in deep-space conditions, a "critical design test" that could see it being sent up on schedule.

Unfortunately the exact timing of the new launch isn't available, and hasn't yet been approved.

But given Nasa's new commitment to capturing an asteroid and bringing it close to Earth for study - and the new sensor's potentially vital role in that effort - it seems likely that it could happen sooner or later.

"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 the Near-Earth Object Program Office.

Nasa is also searching for ways to target asteroids with space craft, either to nudge it into a different orbit, land on it, "lasso" it for mining or otherwise just collide with one.

Unfortunately, a significant number of asteroids still remain undetected - especially those which - while relatively small - could still wipe out a large city.

And as for those similar to that which crashed into a Russian town earlier this year and injured about 1,000 people, it's still virtually impossible to track them before it's too late. According to Nasa chief Charles Bolden our best bet when it comes to avoiding asteroids is still - with tongue only partially in cheek - "prayer".

Loading Slideshow...
  • Police dash cam of Meteor over Edmonton, Canada

    Meteor falling from the sky in Edmonton, Canada. Filmed about 5:30pm Thursday November 20th 2008.

  • Police dash cam of Meteor over Edmonton, Canada

    Police dash cam of Meteor over Edmonton, Canada. Filmed about 5:30pm Thursday November 20th 2008

  • Meteor Over Alberta, Canada The Great Daylight 1972 Fireball

    The Great Daylight 1972 Fireball This is footage from early 70's of a meteor passing over Alberta Canada.... Just to clarify, the host is talking about a "meteorite" actually its a meteor because it didn't hit the earth's surface. Meteor = fragments that pass through the Earth's atmosphere, heated to incandescence by friction. Meteorite = Meteor that strikes the earth ...from Understanding the Earth Series

  • Meteor over Netherlands, pictures from Groningen, October 13, 2009. Photographer Robert Mikaelyan

    Meteoor over Nederland, foto's uit groningen, 13 oktober 2009. Fotograaf Robert Mikaelyan Meteor over Netherlands, pictures from Groningen, October 13, 2009. Photographer Robert Mikaelyan

  • Meteor lights up night sky above Utah - Nov 2009

    A large ball of fire streaking across the night time skies just after midnight had many Utahn's wondering what they saw early Wednesday morning. Dozens of calls came with people wondering if they saw a shooting star, others wondered if it was the end of the world, military testing, or even a UFO. People from Mona to Spanish Fork from Ogden to Bountiful all calling in a very similar sighting More... To many, it looked like a large fall of fire, lightning up the sky, some say like daylight, others reported a blue like light that lasted for about 30 seconds. And many reported hearing a boom about 5 minutes later. Utah's NASA and Solar System Ambassador Patrick Wiggins said that it was a meteor also known as a bolide. From his observatory near Stansbury Park he says the break up of the meteor occured at about 240 to 250 degrees azimuth which puts it just north of southwest. He also heard the sound of an explosion that would put the breakup of the bolide about 100 km in that direction placing it high above Granite Peak in the west desert.

  • Perseid Meteor Shower - Friday the 13th

    Watching the yearly Perseid Meteor Shower from the 3rd floor of my hotel in Charlotte, NC. Behold amazing video footage of shooting stars and an occasional lulz! NEVER MISS A NEW VIDEO: Twitter: Facebook: Dailybooth: XBOX Live Gamertag: "ReallyRick"

  • April 2010 Meteor Fireball over Northern Iowa

    Howard County, Iowa Deputy Tim Beckman captures this video of a fireball streaking over the Iowa sky on Wednesday, April 15th, 2010