Asteroid searchers take the high ground

February 22, 2013

Everyone knows that if you want to see a great distance, getting up higher makes for a better view. University of Calgary researchers are following that principle to make ground-breaking discoveries of asteroids in near-Earth orbits.

The launch of NEOSSat (Near-Earth Object ) 800 kilometres above the Earth next Monday will enable University of Calgary researchers to undertake a comprehensive study of asteroids – and possibly comets – orbiting between the Earth and the Sun. These asteroids rarely or never make it into the night sky, so are a difficult target for conventional ground-based survey telescopes.

In orbit above the Earth, the suitcase-sized NEOSSat can search for these small, dim objects 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even in the "daylight" sky. The 15-centimetre Maksutov telescope on board NEOSSat is fitted with a specially designed baffle, which should block most stray sunlight and allow it to take hundreds of sensitive images every 24 hours. The satellite's focus will be on the areas of space between 45 and 49 degrees away from the Sun along the Earth's orbit; territory previously largely uncharted for researchers looking for asteroids.

Data will be downloaded via the Canada Space Agency to the University of Calgary's Department of Geoscience where, a science processing operations centre will search the images for moving tiny dots of light that represent asteroids.

"In the practical sense, we're contributing to our civilisation's effort to map the near-earth population of asteroids, and we want to know about that for different reasons," says Alan Hildebrand, associate professor in the Department of Geoscience.

"For example, an accurate survey of the number of near-Earth asteroids will allow the scientific community to re-examine impact rates (with planets). Impact rates and counting craters on Mercury and Venus built estimates of their age, so any marked change in our current knowledge would change our understanding of their surfaces' history. We will reduce the impact hazard by a few per cent with NEOSSat's discoveries, but our bigger contribution will probably be a greater understanding of the asteroids themselves."

Last week's pass of Earth by asteroid DA14 and the unrelated meteor fireball over Russia might imply this project is looking out for doomsday projectiles. Rob Cardinal – the Department of Geoscience research associate who designed the high-performance computers and some of the software to process the data received from NEOSSat – says this is an oversimplification.

"Some may say we are watching for objects that are going to destroy the planet, but the probability of that is so small," he says. "There are so many more realistic things you can do with the knowledge we will gain; like sampling, or even mining in the future. All the data we collect will eventually be made available publicly via the Global Virtual Observatory for other people to use in their research."

It is the quest for discovery that drives this project, and the Near-Earth Space Surveillance (NESS) project science team, led by Hildebrand, has a dozen internationally distributed planetary scientists active in asteroid research. It has taken the team 13 years to arrive at the point of Monday's launch from India. A successful launch into orbit will be followed by a brief period of capability testing, and the search operations.

"One of the most fun things that would come out of this project would be if we do happen to find an asteroid that has an orbit very close to the Earth's orbit that would make it an easy target for exploration," Hildebrand says. "NASA is considering sending crews to an . The biggest candidate they have within their window is only approximately 100 metres diameter. If we found something like a 500-metre one that was close enough, that would be an instant exploration target."

Explore further: New horseshoe orbit Earth-companion asteroid discovered

Related Stories

New horseshoe orbit Earth-companion asteroid discovered

April 6, 2011

( -- Apostolos Christou and David Asher from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland announced the discovery of an asteroid near Earth called Asteroid 2010 SO16 and their findings were published on ...

Time for Europe to beef up asteroid vigilance, ESA says

February 21, 2013

Europe must strengthen its watch for dangerous space rocks, the head of the European Space Agency's asteroid surveillance programme said Thursday, a week after a meteor struck Russia in a blinding fireball.

The hustle and bustle of our solar system

July 31, 2012

( -- This diagram illustrates the differences between orbits of a typical near-Earth asteroid (blue) and a potentially hazardous asteroid, or PHA (orange). PHAs are a subset of the near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) and ...

Asteroid To Fly By Earth Wednesday Is a Natural

January 13, 2010

( -- Asteroid 2010 AL30, discovered by the LINEAR survey of MIT's Lincoln Laboratories on Jan. 10, will make a close approach to the Earth's surface to within 76,000 miles on Jan. 13 at 12:46 pm Greenwich time ...

The First of Many Asteroid Finds for WISE

January 25, 2010

( -- NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has spotted its first never-before-seen near-Earth asteroid, the first of hundreds it is expected to find during its mission to map the whole sky in infrared ...

Recommended for you

Jupiter's complex transient auroras

May 25, 2017

Combined observations from three spacecraft show that Jupiter's brightest auroral features recorded to date are powered by both the volcanic moon Io and interaction with the solar wind.

Juno mission to Jupiter delivers first science results

May 25, 2017

NASA's Juno mission, led by Southwest Research Institute's Dr. Scott Bolton, is rewriting what scientists thought they knew about Jupiter specifically, and gas giants in general, according to a pair of Science papers released ...

Methanol detected for first time around young star

May 25, 2017

Methanol, a key building block for the complex organic compounds that comprise life, has been detected for the first time in the protoplanetary disk of a young, distant star. This finding could help scientists better understand ...

New Neliota project detects flashes from lunar impacts

May 25, 2017

Using a system developed under an ESA contract, the Greek NELIOTA project has begun to detect flashes of light caused by small pieces of rock striking the moon's surface. NELIOTA is the first system that can determine the ...

Cassini looks on as solstice arrives at Saturn

May 25, 2017

NASA's Cassini spacecraft still has a few months to go before it completes its mission in September, but the veteran Saturn explorer reaches a new milestone today. Saturn's solstice—that is, the longest day of summer in ...

Discovered: Fast-growing galaxies from early universe

May 24, 2017

A team of astronomers including Carnegie's Eduardo Bañados and led by Roberto Decarli of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy has discovered a new kind of galaxy which, although extremely old—formed less than a billion ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.