U of C researchers 
behind launch of 
asteroid-seeking satellite

Publication YearIssue Date 

University of Calgary professors are behind the launch of a new surveillance satellite that will orbit Earth and take pictures of asteroids. The satellite is the first of its kind. The researchers hope to discover new asteroids and understand their properties.

The Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite launched in India on Feb. 25 and is part of the Near Earth Space Surveillance project led by U of C geoscience researcher and professor Alan Hildebrand. The satellite weighs 65 kilograms and is the size of “a briefcase.” It will have a small 15 centimetre telescope attached to it.

Hildebrand’s responsibilities with the project include managing the team’s progress and planning the NESS project observations.

The NESS project has 12 researchers from around the world and is affiliated with the Canadian Space Agency and Defence Research and Development Canada. Space agencies from China, Europe, India, Russia and the United States are also involved.

NEOSSat will orbit about 800 kilometres above Earth, using images to detect unknown asteroids between the sun and Earth. Asteroids found in this area are considered ‘near-Earth’ 

“The satellite carries a little telescope with which we will search for asteroids,” said Hildebrand. “Asteroids are rocky and sometimes metallic objects, which are mostly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. However, some leak out and in doing so they can move into the inner solar system where our planet is.”

The project took 13 years to develop and cost over $12 million. The images will be used to collect data at the U of C science processing operations 

“We are going to be searching for the ones that are mostly within the Earth’s orbit, which are difficult to discover with an instrument on the ground,” said Hildebrand.

According to U of C geoscience associate researcher Rob Cardinal, who developed Asteroid search software for the NESS project, there are 12 known asteroids that come in close proximity to Earth. Cardinal hopes the NEOSSat will help the team discover many more.

“The whole purpose of this is to get a handle on what the population statistics [for asteroids] are like, what their orbital dynamics are like and their size distribution,” said Cardinal. 

He said that there are three main reasons to search for asteroids: asteroids can be dangerous if they get too close to Earth; they are interesting scientifically as remnants of our solar system’s formation; and they will be very valuable as resources in the future.

Cardinal said the asteroids found can be hundreds of metres in length.

“We are going to be finding them at quite a distance from Earth,” said Cardinal. “If you think about looking off the side of the sun and the sunlight is shining on the asteroid, you have only got a little crescent of light reflecting at you, so the object has to be quite large to reflect enough light through small telescopes to see it.”

Cardinal is excited to advance the knowledge of these near-Earth asteroids. He said the media can exaggerate fears of potentially hazardous asteroids, as the likelihood of asteroids striking Earth is small.

The asteroids contain over 92 natural elements, many of them precious metals.

Cardinal said he was excited about the potential research opportunities that understanding asteroids can bring about, speaking of the potential mining of asteroids.

“What is exciting for me to think about is that big companies want to mine asteroids, and they have publicly stated that their mission is to mine the asteroids and this is actually going to happen,” said Cardinal.