NEOShield to assess Earth defence
NEOShield is a new international project that will assess the threat posed by Near Earth Objects (NEO) and look at the best possible solutions for dealing with a big asteroid or comet on a collision path with our planet.
The effort is being led from the German space agency’s (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, and had its kick-off meeting this week.
It will draw on expertise from across Europe, Russia and the US.
It’s a major EU-funded initiative that will pull together all the latest science, initiate a fair few laboratory experiments and new modelling work, and then try to come to some definitive positions.
Industrial partners, which include the German, British and French divisions of the big Astrium space company, will consider the engineering architecture required to deflect one of these bodies out of our path.
Should we kick it, try to tug it, or even blast it off its trajectory?
“We’re going to collate all the scientific information with a view to mitigation,” explains project leader Prof Alan Harris at DLR.
“What do you need to know about an asteroid in order to be able to change its course - to deflect it from a catastrophic course with the Earth?”
It’s likely that NEOShield will, at the end of its three-and-a-half-year study period, propose to the politicians that they launch a mission to demonstrate the necessary technology.
The NEO threat may seem rather distant, but the geological and observational records tell us it is real.
On average, an object about the size of car will enter the Earth’s atmosphere once a year, producing a spectacular fireball in the sky.
About every 2,000 years or so, an object the size of a football field will impact the Earth, causing significant local damage.
And then, every few million years, a rock turns up that has a girth measured in kilometres. An impact from one of these will produce global effects.
The latest estimates indicate that we’ve probably found a little over 90% of the true monsters out there and none look like they’ll hit us.
It is that second category that merits further investigation.
Data from Nasa’s Wise telescope suggests there are likely to be about 19,500 NEOs in the 100-1,000m size range, and the vast majority of these have yet to be identified and tracked.
New telescopes are coming that will significantly improve detection success. In the meantime, the prudent course would be to develop a strategy for the inevitable.
The strongest mitigation candidates currently would appear to be: