NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation Program meticulously documents all sightings of asteroids that could pose a potential threat to our planet. However, geographic limitations mean that anywhere from 2 percent to 7 percent of asteroids are undetected.
Former director of the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (CDSCC) and recently appointed UNSW Canberra Professor of Practice, Ed Kruzins, believes Canberra can help fill that important gap.
“We could create a capacity here in Australia – because of our unique geographic location – to close that gap and provide a service to NASA and the global community,” said Professor Kruzins.
“There’s a group called the International Asteroid Warning Network, which is part of the United Nations, and I really want Australia to be a part of that.”
During Professor Kruzins’ time at the CDSCC, the team discovered that the 70-meter antenna in Tidbinbilla could be used to illuminate asteroids via radio waves and collect valuable data. UNSW Canberra Space worked with the CDSCC team to analyze the signals and contribute to the NASA catalog.
Paired with the university’s telescopes — one on the ADFA campus and another in Yass — Professor Kruzins said Canberra was well placed to assist in the vital task of spotting asteroids.
Catastrophic asteroid events are rare.
However, they are attributed to mass extinctions, the most famous of which wiped out three quarters of life on Earth, including the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago. That asteroid would be about 10 to 15 kilometers wide.
In 2013, a much smaller asteroid – the Chelyabinsk meteor about 20 meters – injured nearly 1,500 people and damaged 7,200 buildings in Cherbakyl, Russia.
In 1908, a 50 to 60 meter meteoroid exploded over a sparsely populated area in Tungaska, Siberia, knocking down an estimated 80 million trees over an area of 2150 square kilometers.
The Tungaska event is the largest impact event on Earth in modern history, but larger asteroids exist and their impact can be devastating.
“UNSW’s work is therefore seeking to understand the orbital knowledge and science of asteroids detected from the Southern Hemisphere and to determine potentially dangerous asteroids,” said Professor Kruzins.
NASA has already explored how to deflect asteroids if they appear too close for comfort.
The recently launched Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) aims to test how firing a kinetic object at an asteroid can deviate its course.
It’s not just asteroids that Australia could play a role in tracking. Professor Kruzins said the same technology could also be applied to man-made objects, such as satellites and space debris, potentially locating or canceling rogue space missions.
Object detection is a rich field of study and one in which UNSW is already well placed through its Space Situation Awareness Research Program to help Australia make a meaningful contribution.
“This is our chance to play on the world stage to do something very important and increase the knowledge in this field,” said Professor Kruzins.