Asteroid-hunting Canadian satellite to launch Monday
Canadian Space Agency (CSA) technologist Eric Bottriell and Microsat Systems Canada Incorporated (MSCI) electrical engineer Sylvain Legault prepare NEOSSat for thermal vacuum testing in CSA's David Florida Lab test facility at Shirleys Bay campus, Ottawa, Ontario. (JANICE LANG/DRDC handout/QMI Agency)
Scientists at the University of Calgary are hoping for a bird’s eye view of the space between our planet and the Sun with Monday’s launch of the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat).
Once it reaches about 800 km above us, the suitcase-sized NEOSSat will take a Sun-synchronous orbit, and point its 15 cm Maksutov telescope between 45 and 49 degrees from our planet in the search for asteroids — and possibly comets.
“We’re interested in asteroids for different reasons,” said Alan Hildebrand, an associate professor in the department of geoscience at the U of C who is heading up the project.
“We’ll learn about the evolution of the solar system, how the asteroids leak out of the main belt and into the inner solar system.
“We’re interested in asteroids as exploration targets, as potential resources and of course, they represent a hazard to our planet.”
Images will be beamed back to Hildebrand’s team at the U of C, which they will search for asteroids.
Most of the larger — and potentially dangerous — objects orbiting between the Earth and sun have already been identified, said Hildebrand, so researchers on this project are looking for smaller ones.
“The good news on the hazard front is over the last 15 years or so, 80% or 90% of the threat of an impact has been retired,” he said.
“Ground-based telescopes have been finding the big asteroids and determining their orbits and none of the big ones found to date is going to hit us anytime soon.
“NEOSSat will find a few more of these unknowns and will reduce the impact hazard another few percent, but its primary purpose is scientific in terms of understanding the populations of asteroids.”
Large objects that pose a serious threat to Earth measure about one km in diameter and larger, said Hildebrand.
“Our strategy of looking near the sun means we’re going to be finding asteroids when they’re relatively far from the Earth,” he said,
“We’ll be finding them, say 300 m in diameter.”
By comparison, the asteroid which exploded above Russia recently, smashing windows damaging buildings with its sonic boom, was just 15 m in diameter, much too small for most telescopes to pick out.
The cost of the $25-million project is being split evenly between two federal bodies, the Canadian Space Agency and Defence Research Development Canada.