July 01, 2008
Canadian Satellite To Search For Asteroids

Asteroids are like cancer. Early detection is the key to effective treatment. An asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. A big enough asteroid could wipe out humanity if we do not find it years before it strikes Earth. Therefore a cheap Canadian space telescope satellite designed to search for asteroids is a really good idea.

Canada is building the world’s first space telescope designed to detect and track asteroids as well as satellites. Called NEOSSat (Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite), this spacecraft will provide a significant improvement in surveillance of asteroids that pose a collision hazard with Earth and innovative technologies for tracking satellites in orbit high above our planet. Weighing in at a mere 65-kilograms, this dual-use $12-million mission builds upon Canada’s expertise in compact “microsatellite” design. NEOSSat will be the size of a large suitcase, and is cost-effective because of its small size and ability to “piggyback” on the launch of other spacecraft. The mission is funded by Defence Research Development Canada(DRDC) and the Canadian Space Agency(CSA). Together CSA and DRDC formed a Joint Project Office to manage the NEOSSat design, construction and launch phases. NEOSSat is expected to be launched into space in 2010. The two projects that will use NEOSSat are HEOSS (High Earth Orbit Space Surveillance) and the NESS (Near Earth Space Surveillance) asteroid search program.

But if the Canadians find an asteroid is going to wipe us out will they burrow under ground and not tell anyone else? More room for them, eh?

Although NEOSSat’s 15-centimetre telescope is smaller than most amateur astronomers’, its location approximately 700 kilometres above Earth’s atmosphere will give it a huge advantage in searching the blackness of space for faint signs of moving asteroids. Twisting and turning hundreds of times each day, orbiting from pole to pole every 50 minutes, and generating power from the Sun, NEOSSat will send dozens of images to the ground each time it passes over Canada. Due to the ultra-low sky background provided by the vacuum of space, NEOSSat will be able to detect asteroids delivering as few as 50 photons of light in a 100-second exposure.

We really ought to put up some more powerful satellites and find all the asteroids at a much faster rate. Why not remove this risk from our lives?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 July 01 04:52 PM  Dangers Asteroids

Carl Shulman said at July 2, 2008 3:51 AM:

"But if the Canadians find an asteroid is going to wipe us out will they burrow under ground and not tell anyone else? More room for them, aye?"
It's 'eh.'

Brett Bellmore said at July 2, 2008 6:09 AM:

Shouldn't a near Earth asteroid searching satellite be put in solar orbit, somewhat closer to the Sun than Earth? Ideally you want to be able to see the Earth crossing asteroids that spend most of their time sunwards of Earth, too, and that means that you want to be even closer to the Sun than Earth, to see them well lit.

I suppose this is a good first step, but it's not the early warning system we really need.

Brock said at July 2, 2008 6:37 AM:

Hmmm. $12M seems pretty cheap, for a space asset. Any future satellites should be cheaper too, since the engineering's been done and the software written. I wonder how many of these things it would take to say that we're 99.99% likely to detect any asteroid which could be a threat. Or would only a telescope in solar orbit be able to do that?

And what's the lifetime on this? All that spinning must use a lot of fuel, no? Or is it all solar electricity and gyroscopes? The article doesn't say.

Paul F. Dietz said at July 2, 2008 11:19 AM:

The best place to search for potentially earth-impacting asteroids is directly ahead or behind on the earth's orbit around the sun. This is because these asteroids will tend to do many "near misses", crossing the orbit when the earth is not quite in the right position, before they actually hit.

By the way, a spinning satellite needn't use any fuel, Brock. What would make it stop spinning?

Brock said at July 2, 2008 12:33 PM:


From the article:

“NEOSSat requires remarkable agility and pointing stability that has never before been achieved by a microsatellite,” says David Cooper, General Manager of Mississauga-based Dynacon Inc., the prime contractor for the NEOSSat spacecraft and the manufacturer and operator of the MOST satellite. “It must rapidly spin to point at new locations hundreds of times per day, each time screeching to a halt to hold rock steady on a distant target, or precisely track a satellite along its orbit, and image-on-the-run.”

emphasis added.

K said at July 2, 2008 8:45 PM:

Why not reduce the risk from lightning bolts by spending a few billion for helmet research and making everyone wear them?

This is a neat technical feat. But to keep doing it over and over? Using fear to get funding is now routine in science.

At least when you paid the Mafia protection money you knew their threats were real.

averros said at July 2, 2008 9:50 PM:

Spinning satellites doesn't require fuel. It is done with gyros. Fuel is used for orbit corrections.

BTW, it is not proven that dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid strike. They do coincide in time (give or take a million years), but the chain of causation is not established. In fact, it is very hard to wipe out wide-spread species with one-time event.

Michael G.R. said at July 3, 2008 6:49 AM:

If you want to improve NEO detection, sign up for Orbit@home:


It's in advanced beta-phase and has work units. Got some funding from NASA.

Right now it's working on improve our "sky survey" techniques, and so far it looks like improvements could "exceed the expectations" of the project.

After that, it'll use data from telescopes around the world to crunch NEO orbits.

Michael G.R. said at July 3, 2008 7:00 AM:

A good primer:


Search for NEO doesn't have to be very expensive (see orbit@home above), but it should definitely be done. We tend to underestimate low risk, high impact threats because of cognitive biases and because it sounds too much like a hollywood scenario.

There's also these things I wrote a while ago:




Brock said at July 3, 2008 9:14 AM:

K, a lightning strike may or may not kill one person. Another Tunguska event could wipe out an entire US State or the average European country. Bigger asteroids could wipe out the species. Considering the risk delta there, the amount of money we're talking about is nothing. The insurance industry is many times this size for risks of much less consequence.

K said at July 3, 2008 2:25 PM:

Brock: the amount of money is always nothing to those asking for it.

This isn't a case of being unable to reason as some snidely imply.

And it isn't an underestimation of risks; it is a choice about how to live. NEO is off my big Chart Of Concerns. My chart wouldn't match yours.

Living is risk, death is security (as far as I know the dead never suffer again).

Watching is neither insurance or protection. It won't prevent a single collision, big or small. To do that would consume billions more for decades and then might not work.

Paul F, Dietz said at July 3, 2008 4:19 PM:

Brock: the rapid pointing is done with reaction wheels (technically, not gyros, which are used for sensing of rotation rates). This requires power, but no fuel.

Tides and drag can eventually cause angular momentum to accumulate in the reaction wheels, but this is typically dumped, for LEO spacecraft, using coils that react against the Earth's magnetic field. The HST uses this technique, for example.

Paul F. Dietz said at July 3, 2008 4:25 PM:

BTW, it is not proven that dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid strike. They do coincide in time (give or take a million years), but the chain of causation is not established. In fact, it is very hard to wipe out wide-spread species with one-time event.

The evidence the asteroid impact caused the K/T mass extinction is rather firm. The temporal interval is much shorter than a million years, judging by the extinction of abundant species like forams, which are so abundant in oceanic sediments the event is like the cut of a knife (vs. dinosaur fossils, which are always few and far between.) Given that, to assert the coincidence of the two events is just a coincidence becomes rather strained.

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