Canadian Asteroid-detecting Satellite Launches Today

Less than two weeks after the Russian meteor event injured almost 1,500 people, Canada is launching a meteor detection satellite. In a case of pretty poor luck, the satellite is designed to detect Aten asteroids—a group of asteroids known for near-Earth orbits, and the type the Russian meteor just happened to be.

The Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat) was not thrown together in the last two weeks, though; rather, it was in development for years. Built in Canada, it is the first space telescope dedicated entirely to the detection of asteroids with near-Earth orbits. NEOSSat was built by Microsat Systems Canada (MSCI) and is a joint collaboration between the Canadian Space Agency and Defence Research and Development Canada. It cost approximately $15 million.

“We’re pretty lucky that it just grazed off the Earth’s atmosphere and heated up and exploded, rather than having a trajectory which would have taken it right into the Earth. If it had come down in the middle of New York City it would have made a lot more noise than it did,” explains David Cooper, CEO of MSCI, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, “Once we detect and track them [near-Earth asteroids], we can project their orbit and then forecast ahead—sometimes years or decades [in advance]—where and when they will cross Earth’s orbit.”

The satellite will launch from India today and will be joined by six more satellites, including another Canadian satellite, Sapphire. In another first for Canadians, Sapphire is our first military satellite, costing  about $65 million, and will help track “space junk”—pieces of space debris larger than 10 centimeters. Space junk has a huge potential for the destruction of satellites, enough that the US Space Surveillance Network currently tracks more than 22,000 pieces. Sapphire will be a significant contributor to this network.