By Nathan Long
Climbing to higher ground makes it easier to see great distances. University of Calgary researchers are taking that principle to an extreme, in order to make ground-breaking discoveries of asteroids orbiting between Earth and the sun.
The launch of NEOSSat, or the Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite, 800 kilometres above the Earth next Monday will allow a Department of Geoscience team to undertake a comprehensive study of asteroids – and possibly comets – orbiting between 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.
The suitcase-sized NEOSSat can search for these small, dim objects 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even in the “daylight” sky. Its 15-centimetre Maksutov telescope 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 Earth’s orbit; territory largely uncharted for researchers looking for asteroids.
“In the practical sense, we’re contributing to our civilization’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.
“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,” says Hildebrand.
Recent news events might imply this project is looking out for doomsday projectiles. But 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,” Cardinal 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.”
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 see the project come to the point of Monday’s launch from India. A successful launch into orbit will be followed by a brief period of capability testing, and then search operations.
The development of new Earth-space technologies is one of six key research themes identified as critical to guiding the University of Calgary towards its Eyes High goal of becoming one of Canada’s top-five research institutions by 2016.
The NEOSSat mission is a jointly funded project of the Canadian Space Agency and Defence Research and Development Canada.