Precovery is a term used in astronomy that describes the process of finding the image of an object (usually a minor planet) in old archived images or photographic plates, for the purpose of calculating a more accurate orbit. The name is based on pre-recovery; recovery being the process of making new observations of a previously-observed object after a period of non-observation.
To accurately calculate an orbit for any solar system object, it is necessary to measure its angular position on multiple occasions. The more widely separated these are in time, the more accurately the orbit can be calculated. However, for a newly discovered object, only a few days or weeks worth of measured positions are available, which is only sufficient for a preliminary (not very precise) orbit calculation.
When an object is of particular interest, for instance a near-Earth asteroid with a chance of impacting the Earth, a precovery effort is made. Using the preliminary orbit calculations to predict where the object might appear on old archival images (sometimes from decades ago), those images are searched to see if it was in fact photographed at the time. If so, a far more precise orbital calculation can be made.
An extreme case of precovery occurred with asteroid 29075. It was discovered on December 31, 2000, designated 2000 YK66, and a near-Earth orbit calculated. Precovery revealed that it had previously been discovered on February 23, 1950, designated 1950 DA, and then been lost for half a century. The exceptionally long observation period allowed an unusually precise orbit calculation, and the asteroid was determined to have a small chance of colliding with the Earth.
Before modern inexpensive and fast computers, it was impractical to analyze and measure images for possible minor planet discoveries because this involved a considerable amount of manual labor. Usually such images were made years or decades ago for other purposes (studies of galaxies, etc) and it was not worth anyone's while to look for run-of-the-mill minor planets. Today, computers can easily analyze digital astronomical images and compare them to online star catalogs containing up to a billion or so star positions, and the identification of minor planet candidates is automated to a much greater extent. Such modern techniques (since about the mid 1990s) have enormously increased the rate of minor planet discoveries.