Canada Poised To Launch 1st Dedicated Asteroid-tracking Telescope

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VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada has the potential to become a leader in detecting and tracking asteroids and satellites with the launch of its NEOSSat spacecraft, while at the same time learning valuable lessons that could guide its future microsatellite work, senior Canadian Space Agency (CSA) officials say.

NEOSSat (Near-Earth Object Space Surveillance Satellite) is billed as the world’s first space telescope dedicated to detecting and tracking asteroids and satellites. The spacecraft arrived in India Jan. 18 and will be put into orbit by India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) during a launch window scheduled to open Feb. 11.

William Harvey, the CSA’s NEOSSat senior project manager, said the microsatellite will circle the globe every 100 minutes and will discover or track new asteroids near the sun. Such near-Earth asteroids are difficult to search for using ground-based telescopes.

“It’s looking to characterize those asteroids which have basically gone undetected because they’re coming out of the inner solar system, an area close to the sun,” Harvey said of NEOSSat. “It’s the first satellite ever to be dedicated to that activity.”

Harvey said the lessons learned from NEOSSat will contribute to future Canadian microsatellite missions. He noted that such smaller spacecraft are more in line with Canadian space resources and the country’s tendency to do more with less.

“We hope we will be able to take the lessons learned from our microsatellite bus and propagate them through to future missions and basically reduce the time to launch,” he said.

The satellite will also conduct surveillance of space, looking for man-made objects such as satellites and space debris. It will track and catalogue objects in mid-to-deep-space orbits.

In that mission it will complement a larger Canadian military satellite, Sapphire, which is also being launched on the same Indian rocket. The Sapphire satellite will track space objects in high Earth orbit as part of Canada’s contribution to space situational awareness. Data from Sapphire will contribute to the U.S. Space Surveillance Network.

NEOSSat is jointly funded by the Canadian Space Agency and Defence Research and Development Canada, the science organization for the Defence Department. The satellite was built by Microsat Systems Canada Inc., Mississauga, Ontario, with support from Spectral Applied Research, Richmond Hill, Ontario, and Com Dev International, Cambridge, Ontario. The 65-kilogram spacecraft is equipped with a 15-centimeter optical telescope. NEOSSat will orbit approximately 800 kilometers above the Earth.

The total cost of the project is around 25 million Canadian dollars ($24 million), Harvey said.

“There’s good work for Canada here to show the world we are leaders in an area where we can contribute to the knowledge about where these objects are and avert such hazards,” he added.

The CSA expects that NEOSSat will generate hundreds of images per day. Those will be downloaded and analyzed by the University of Calgary’s NEOSSat science operations center.

“We’ve got the prospect of discovering somewhere between four and 12 new asteroids every month that the NEOSSat mission is active,” Harvey said. “That is a significant number.”

NEOSSat will also keep track of the positions of both satellites and debris as part of the High Earth Orbit Surveillance System project run by Defence Research and Development Canada. One of the major advantages of using NEOSSat in this capacity is that, unlike ground-based telescopes, NEOSSat will be able to track satellites and space debris in a wide variety of locations and not be limited by geographic location, the day-night cycle or weather, according to the CSA. Guennadi Kroupnik, CSA’s director of satellite communications and space environment, said that NEOSSat’s mission life is one year but that the agency expects it will go well beyond that period.

He noted that asteroids are the most probable next frontier for space exploration from a science and resources point of view. “Asteroids are attracting a lot of attention from the business community as potential objects for mining precious resources,” Kroupnik explained. “So before engaging in mining we need to catalog, understand, classify asteroids.” Canada will share the data with scientists and researchers from the University of British Columbia, the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., the University of Arizona, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Hawaii, NASA and U.S. government contractor SAIC.