A new space observatory will detect asteroids hidden in Sun's glare
The European Space Agency (ESA) aims to make the world safer with a spacecraft that can detect asteroids that the sun's glare would otherwise hide.
The NEOMIR space observatory is designed to give an advanced warning about asteroids in a blindspot caused by intense sunlight.
The plan is particularly important given the context that several unknown asteroids either impacted Earth or performed a close flyby of our planet in recent years.
ESA space observatory to remove asteroid blindspot
The NEOMIR mission will specialize in observing moderate-sized asteroids approaching Earth from the direction of the Sun. It will hopefully give us an adequate response time if a hazardous asteroid were to be detected.
The global scientific community has been working hard on planetary defense technologies in recent years. Last year, for example, NASA proved it could alter the trajectory of an asteroid with its DART mission, which slammed a spacecraft into an asteroid.
ESA's Near-Earth Object Mission in the InfraRed (NEOMIR) space observatory is set to launch to Lagrange Point 1. Lagrange Point 1, or L1, is the closest point between the Earth and the sun, where the gravitational forces between the two are balanced, allowing for a stable orbit. The James Webb Space Telescope similarly uses a stable orbital location at Lagrange Point 2, some 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from Earth.
Once positioned at L1, NEOMIR will use infrared instruments to watch for the heat asteroids emit as they pass near the sun. Using these infrared sensors, it will be able to spot space rocks that would otherwise be blinded by the sun. From Earth, those heat signatures would simply be absorbed by our atmosphere and wouldn't be visible.
A valuable new tool for planetary defense
ESA says NEOMIR should be able to give us up to about three weeks' notice of any approaching asteroids. The observatory is designed to detect a few dozen meters in diameter asteroids — meaning they wouldn't be dinosaur killers. Still, they could cause severe property damage and loss of life. So while three weeks might not sound like a long time, it would at least be enough to evacuate a city if it were determined that an asteroid was headed in its general direction.
The 2013 Chelyabinsk asteroid that exploded over the Russian city ten years ago is an excellent example of a space rock that NEOMIR could have detected. That asteroid was hiding in the Sun's glare, ultimately taking the world's asteroid trackers off guard. It measured roughly 20-m (66 ft) in diameter, and Russian authorities reported that close to 1,500 people sought medical attention after the incident. Most of those were due to injuries from shattered glass caused by the blast.
NEOMIR is currently in the early mission study phase, and ESA hopes to launch the space observatory to L1 around 2030. It could prove to be a vital tool for Earth's planetary defense.
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