In the wake of the meteor blast over Russia and the close quarter fly by of asteroid 2012 DA14 last week, many people's thoughts have turned to potential dangers from above. It is timely then that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) will next week launch NEOSSat (Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite), the world’s first space telescope for detecting and tracking asteroids, satellites and space debris.
A demonstration of the CSA’s first MMMB (Multi-Mission Microsatellite Bus) spacecraft, the suitcase-sized NEOSSat weighs only 80 kilograms (176 lb) and will orbit the Earth at an altitude of approximately 800 kilometers (500 mi) every 100 minutes. Its key technology is derived from CSA’s MOST (Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars) satellite and, like MOST, it uses a 15-cm (5.9-in) aperture Maksutov telescope that can detect objects down to the 20th magnitude in brightness as its primary instrument.
NEOSSat has two missions. The first is NESS (Near Earth Space Surveillance), which is intended to detect and track asteroids, such as the one that made a close quarter fly by of Earth last week. Because of its high orbit, NEOSSat isn’t restricted by the day/night cycle as telescopes on Earth are and can operate 24/7. It will scan space from 45º to 55º from the Sun and 40º above and below the Earth’s orbit. The hundreds of images produced will be sent to the University of Calgary's NEOSSat science operations center for analysis.
The second part of its mission will be as part of the Defence Research and Development Canada's (DRDC's) High Earth Orbit Surveillance System (HEOSS), which aims to reduce collisions by monitoring orbiting space objects – both satellites and "space junk." NEOSSat will be the first microsatellite used for this purpose and will compare observed satellites and debris to existing orbital catalogs and provide updates. This will be used both to help control space debris and for military applications.
While the launch is timely given the events of last week, it would not have detected the meteor that exploded over Russia even if it was already in orbit. This is because NEOSSat is designed to look for asteroids larger than 500 m (1,640 ft), while last week's meteor is estimated to have only measured 17 m (55.7 ft) across. However, NEOSSat will overcome the problem of glare faced by earthbound observatories if a larger asteroid decided to arrive unannounced during the day from the direction of the Sun as the Russian meteor did.
NEOSSat will be launched on February 25, 2013 at the Satish Dhawan Space Center, India, atop an Indian Space Research Organisation PLSV-C20 rocket.
The video below outlines the NEOSSat mission.