Washington, June 27 : Canadian scientists are building the world's first space telescope designed to detect and track asteroids as well as satellites.
Known as NEOSSat (Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite), this spacecraft will provide a significant improvement in surveillance of asteroids that pose a collision hazard with Earth and innovative technologies for tracking satellites in orbit high above our planet.
Weighing in at a mere 65-kilograms, NEOSSat will be the size of a large suitcase, and is cost-effective because of its small size and ability to "piggyback" on the launch of other spacecraft.
The mission is funded by Defence Research Development Canada (DRDC) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
Together, CSA and DRDC formed a Joint Project Office to manage the NEOSSat design, construction and launch phases.
The two projects that will use NEOSSat are HEOSS (High Earth Orbit Space Surveillance) and the NESS (Near Earth Space Surveillance) asteroid search program.
"We are building the world's first space-based telescope designed to search for near-Earth asteroids," said Guy Bujold, President of the Canadian Space Agency.
"This would contribute to the safety of critical Canadian assets, military and civilian, in an increasingly congested space environment," according to Captain Tony Morris of DRDC Ottawa, and Deputy Program Manager of the NEOSSat Joint Project Office.
Although NEOSSat's 15-centimetre telescope is smaller than most amateur astronomers', its location approximately 700 kilometers above Earth's atmosphere will give it a huge advantage in searching the blackness of space for faint signs of moving asteroids.
Twisting and turning hundreds of times each day, orbiting from pole to pole every 50 minutes, and generating power from the Sun, NEOSSat will send dozens of images to the ground each time it passes over Canada.
Due to the ultra-low sky background provided by the vacuum of space, NEOSSat will be able to detect asteroids delivering as few as 50 photons of light in a 100-second exposure.
According to Dr. Alan Hildebrand, who leads an international science team for the NESS asteroid search project, NEOSSat will discover many asteroids much faster than can be done from the ground alone.
"Its most exciting result, however, will probably be discovering new targets for exploration by both manned and unmanned space missions," he observed.
"By looking along Earth's orbit, NEOSSat will find 'low and slow' asteroids before they pass by our planet and sprint missions could be launched to explore them when they are in the vicinity of the Earth," he added.
NEOSSat is expected to be launched into space in 2010.