QUEST Reveals Near-Earth Object

NASA astronomers use a new camera to discover a near-Earth object.
By | Published: July 27, 2003 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
July 19, 2003
NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) team scans the sky for potentially hazardous asteroids using the fledgling QUEST (Quasar Equatorial Survey Team) camera at California’s Palomar Observatory. While this camera is in the infancy of its career, the QUEST instrument has already proven invaluable in the hunt for sun-orbiting rocks in our solar system.
Oschin Telescope
This photograph, taken in the late 1980s with a “fish-eye” lens, shows the 48-inch (1.2-meter) Oschin Schmidt Telescope and the inside of its dome. Built in 1949, the telescope is used today to search for near-Earth objects.
© Alain Maury
“The QUEST camera is still undergoing commissioning trials, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do some real science in the meantime,” says Steven Pravdo, NEAT project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “What we found was a near-Earth asteroid, estimated to be about 820 feet (250 meters) in size.”

The NEAT team detected the near-Earth object, now called 2003 NL7, on July 8, 2003. Follow-up measurements by three other observatories and the Minor Planet Center confirmed the discovery. Although 2003 NL7 is classified as a near-Earth asteroid, it has no chance of impacting the planet. The asteroid maintains a solar orbit of 2.97 years and its closest approach to Earth’s orbit is about 15.6 million miles (25.1 million kilometers).

Mounted on Palomar’s 48-inch (1.2-meter) Oschin Telescope in April, the QUEST camera is a joint effort by Yale University and Indiana University. The instrument’s purpose is to identify and classify quasars, near-Earth asteroids, trans-Neptunian objects, supernovae, and other astronomical bodies and occurrences. With 112 charged coupled devices (CCDs) set over the Oschin’s focal plane, the QUEST camera possesses the ability to create images with 161-megapixel capability. When the instrument is completely calibrated, it will have a significant influence on the discovery of near-Earth asteroids.

“We expect the new camera to increase the efficiency of detection of near-Earth asteroids by some 3 to 4 times that of the camera it replaced,” explains Raymond Bambery, NEAT’s principal investigator. “This will make a major contribution to NASA’s goal of discovering more than ninety percent of near-Earth objects that are greater that .62 mile (1 km) in diameter by 2008.”