4 mins read 03 Mar 2022

Canberra Could Play A Vital Role In Asteroid Detection

Canberra is located in just the right geographical spot to augment NASA’s global asteroid observation program.

Artist's impression of an asteroid near Earth. Credit: Kevin Gill/Flickr.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation Program is designed to document all asteroid sightings that are potential threats to Earth. However, because of geographical constraints and global sky coverage, between two and seven percent of asteroids are not detected.

Professor Ed Kruzins, the former Director of the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (CDSCC) and recently appointed UNSW Canberra Professor of Practice, believes that Canberra could help fill that important gap.

“We could create a capability here in Australia – because of our unique geographic location – to plug that gap and to provide a service to NASA and the global community,” said Professor Kruzins.

“There is a group called the International Asteroid Warning Network, which is a part of the United Nations, and I've been very keen for Australia to become a part of that.”

Australia has been used to augment data from the US because of its geographical location before, most notably with the use of the Honeysuckle and Parkes Radio Telescopes during the Apollo 11 mission and to broadcast man’s first steps on the moon, as well as subsequent missions and exploration campaigns. Even to date, almost all deep space missions have their data, telemetry and communications routed through the Deep Space Network, of which the CDSCC is one of three vital Earth stations to facilitate and manage these exchanges.   

During Professor Kruzins’s time at the CDSCCC, the team discovered that the 70-metre antenna at Tidbinbilla could be used to find asteroids using radio waves and collect valuable data as to their location and orbits. UNSW Canberra Space worked with the CDSCC team to analyse the signals from the antenna at Tidbinbilla and contribute to the NASA catalogue of asteroids. 

UNSW has both satellite ground stations and optical telescopes, at the ADFA campus and just outside the ACT border at Yass. Combining these with the CDSCC antenna at Tidbinbilla, Professor Kruzins said Canberra was well-placed to assist in the vital task of asteroid sighting.

It is rare that Earth is hit by a catastrophically damaging asteroid. The most well known catastrophic asteroid strike on Earth is that which wiped out the dinosaurs as well as three-quarters of life on Earth around 66 million years ago. It is believed that the asteroid that created the Chicxulub crater was between 10 and 15 kilometres wide.

In recent times, the Chelyabinsk meteor injured almost 1,500 people and damaged 7,200 buildings in Cherbakyl, Russia. This 2013 meteor measured only 20 metres.

The Chelyabinsk Meteor. Credit: Marat Ahmetvaleev via NASA.

In 1908 the Tunguska meteoroid underwent a massive airburst event as it entered the atmosphere over Tunguska, Siberia, flattening an estimated 80 million trees over an area of 2,150 square kilometres. This object was estimated to be around 50-60 metres and is the largest impact in modern history. Larger asteroids do exist, however, and their impact on Earth could be devastating.

“UNSW’s work is therefore looking to understand the orbital knowledge and science of asteroids detected from the Southern Hemisphere and to determine potentially hazardous asteroids,” said Professor Kruzins.

NASA is already investigating how to potentially deflect an asteroid should one stray too close for comfort. The recently launched Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) aims to test how firing a kinetic object to an asteroid could deflect its course.

Australia’s role may not be just in tracking asteroids. Professor Kruzins said the same technology could be used for human-made objects such as satellites and other space junk, potentially locating or deconflicting rogue pieces to ensure they do not damage currently active satellites or spacecraft with astronauts on board.  

Object detection is a rich area of study and one that UNSW is already well-placed to assist Australia in making a meaningful contribution through its Space Situation Awareness Research Program.

“This is our chance to play on the world stage to do something quite significant and add to the knowledge in this area,” said Professor Kruzins.