NEOSSat busy keeping a watchful eye on the skies.
courtesy University of Calgary External Relations

U of C helps defend Earth from space attacks

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Thanks to a University of Calgary professor's collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency and Defence Research and Development Canada, a microsatellite may soon defend the Earth from rogue asteroids. Canada's $12 million Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite will be the first space telescope used to observe satellites and asteroids in a near Earth orbit.

Armed with a 15-centimetre telescope, the NEOSSat will act as a traffic controller, tracking satellites and collision threats during space missions in Earth's orbit. The microsatellite's secondary mission will be Near Earth Space Surveillance. Near Earth asteroids will be studied and measured to see if they pose a threat to Earth in the future. U of C geophysics associate professor Dr. Alan Hildebrand plays a role in the secondary mission.

Hildebrand's scientific team developed the NESS program for NEOSSat and will study asteroid data at the U of C. Hildebrand explained it was his interest in asteroids which led to his involvement.

"We started at the beginning of 2000 after Kieran Carrol of Dynacon and Phil Somers at the DRDC had a conversation about what the Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars spacecraft technology could do and asteroid searching was suggested," explained Hildebrand. "Kieran was directed to me, due to my interests in hunting for asteroids."

The mission brought DRDC and CSA together to fund the Joint Project Office.

Hildebrand added that the NEOSSat program has several advantages over ground-based space surveillance methods such as not being subjected to atmospheric fluctuations, weather conditions and the ability to see all wavelengths of light. Additionally, NEOSSat will be able to make observations during every orbit and survey areas that are outside the view of ground based surveillance systems.

"The three advantages to having this satellite in space are 24/7 availability, being able to look closer at the sun and having parallax for all interesting objects," said Hildebrand.

He added that Dynacon Inc. developed a system to accurately aim microsatellites, allowing Canada to do the mission cheaply.

CSA communications senior project manager Dr. William Harvey agreed with Hildebrand, noting the project would provide the Canadian planetary exploration community with a unique opportunity to conduct research on small bodies near Earth.

"This endeavor will be the first effort to catalogue a significant portion of these elusive Aten Class asteroids with diameters greater than one kilometre," said Harvey.

Harvey added the NEOSSat program is the first of the CSA microsatellite programs, which aims at reducing overall costs while building up its previous success, such as the highly successful MOST astronomy microsatellite, which was used to study the age of stars.

DRDC scientist Dr. Brad Wallace said the NEOSSat program is allowing the CSA and DRDC to show off Canada's technological prowess. He added the NEOSSat will demonstrate technology during its dual missions to convince the Canadian Forces of the benefits of the new microsatellites.

"This is important because microsatellites have several benefits over traditional space programs," said Wallace. "They can be put on orbit on a quicker timescale, use more modern technology and cost less compared to traditional satellites. Even a design fault in one microsatellite can be rectified before the space raft is launched."

Wallace added using microsatellites would free up traditional satellites and other resources so they can be used for more challenging tasks.

Harvey stated the U of C is gaining a positive reputation with the CSA for its past work.