Asteroid search efforts got a boost from a new, improved
camera installed this week for NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid
Tracking system on the 1.2-meter (48-inch) Oschin telescope at
the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, Calif.

The camera has a new three-eyed design with three lenses.
It can provide three times more data and survey 1.5 times more
sky than the present NEAT camera that operates currently at
the Maui Space Surveillance Site’s 1.2-meter (48-inch)
telescope in Hawaii.

“The new camera has the flexibility to do a wide and
shallow sky survey, or one not-so-wide but deeper,” said Dr.
Steven Pravdo, NEAT project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We plan to do more deep
observing, so that we can see as many objects as possible.”
The asteroid observers will be able to take panoramic views of
the sky with the three camera eyes or to take a deep exposure
showing many faint objects in a narrow swath.

The whole control system on the Oschin telescope was
upgraded to a computer-controlled system. The old manual
system pointed to only 10 positions each night, but the camera
now needs to point to different positions 1,000 times a night.
The new system captures about 3.75 square degrees of the sky
per image, hundreds of square degrees per night, and most of
the accessible sky each month.

The NEAT team can operate the telescope from their desks
at JPL, as though the camera were a spacecraft.

The new NEAT camera takes pictures with 48 million
pixels, three times more than the system it replaced, and it
can see fainter objects. The Palomar staff, headed by
Superintendent Bob Thicksten, has helped with the
improvements. Palomar Observatory is a facility of the
California Institute of Technology.

“This will be a new lease on life for a very famous
survey telescope, which conducted the first comprehensive
survey of the northern skies in the 1950s and which is now
targeting some exciting astronomical goals – searching for
near-Earth asteroids and examining supernovae and their role
in determining the fate of the cosmos,” said Richard Ellis,
the director of Palomar Observatory.

The new camera’s installation closes the era of using
photographic plates, and marks the rebirth of Palomar
Observatory’s Oschin telescope in the electronic age. “It has
been a dream 20 years in the making,” says NEAT’s principal
investigator Eleanor Helin, who has been discovering asteroids
from Palomar’s two wide-field telescopes since the early days
of near-Earth object search.

This new camera system will continue NASA’s effort to
find 90 percent of all large, near-Earth asteroids by 2010.
“We installed the camera on April 9th, and hope to get results
in the next few days,” Pravdo said.

Using the data taken by the NEAT camera, the Nearby
Supernova Factory project by the Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory will find exploded stars in nearby galaxies. “The
same data we use to find objects close to Earth, they will use
to find objects very far away,” said Pravdo.

Additional information on the NEAT project is available
at . Information on near-Earth
objects is available at .

The Near Earth Asteroid Tracking System is managed for
NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. by JPL, a
division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena,