Friday, August 8, 2008

Asteroid Hunting Satellite Readies for Launch

The Canadian Space Agency is preparing a tiny satellite for a mission of potentially huge significance. The Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite, or NEOSSat, is described as a suitcase-sized satellite, equipped with a six-inch telescope and sun-shade, which will be launched into a Sun-synchronous polar orbit in 2010. It will scan the skies (including those in the perilous sunward blind spot) for near earth asteroids and comets which could pose a threat to the surface of the Earth.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that I lose any sleep over this, it only takes me a few moments' thought to get up a decent head of nervous steam about the issue of how woefully underfunded the search for potential Earth impactors has been to date. Recently, we marked the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska blast, which occurred when an object approximately 500 feet in diameter (with a wide margin of error) slammed into the atmosphere over a remote region of Siberia, and exploded before striking the ground, flattening millions of trees and creating atmospheric effects on a global scale, but outrageously fortunately causing no confirmed human fatalities. Had this event taken place a bit under 5 hours later, it would have completely obliterated St. Petersburg. The Chicxulub impact around 65 million years ago precipitated a global catastrophe which has been implicated in the extinction of a great many species, notably the dinosaurs. While rare, such impacts do happen. And with the wide distribution and population density of the human species at the present time, it is unlikely that we will get off as easy as we did in 1908. Indeed, it really is only a matter of time.

Costing a mere $11.5 million (chump change in satellite world), the NEOSSat will be unfettered by weather, and when not hunting for ravening rocks will monitor human-made space debris which could pose a threat to orbiting assets. It's a win-win, really, and I would love to see a small flotilla of such devices both in near-Earth orbit, and possibly even at one or more of the Lagrange points, which could be undertaken at relatively modest cost (compared to the immense cost of letting even one of these objects strike us unawares). Such a project would supplement the yeoman's work already being done worldwide by amateur astronomers who dutifully scan the skies for humanity's sword of Damocles, many of them under the auspices of organizations like the Spaceguard Foundation. Funding for this sort of work is chronically light (and therein lies one of my more esoteric lottery fantasies), which is a crying shame considering how powerfully silly the mass of humanity will feel if there is in fact an afterlife and we all show up at around the same time.

No comments: