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4 mins read 14 Dec 2019

Perth Scientists Keeping Earth Safe from Near Earth Objects

Western Australian telescope to assist in Near Earth Objects tracking as part of global European Space Agency program.

Blue Earth, seen from space, mostly night lit with city lights showing. Entering the atmosphere is a large asteroid.
Credit: Kevin Gill/Flickr.

The University of Western Australia (UWA) will play a vitally important role in the protection of Earth, by tracking Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) as part of a global program being managed by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The University will be utilising the Zadko Telescope, a 1-meter optical telescope located in Wallingup Plain in the Gingin Shire, to monitor potentially dangerous NEOs that come close to Earth.

NEOs are small astronomical bodies, like comets or asteroids, which have been bumped by other solar system bodies (such as the Gas Giant planets) into new orbits that bring them within proximity to Earth’s region. Known NEOs with that are larger than 140 meters and whose orbit intersects the orbit of the Earth, are known as potentially hazardous objects.

UWA Associate Professor David Coward said the Zadko telescope had the capability to monitor asteroids as far away from Earth as Mars and dangerous space rocks that may previously have been undetected near Earth.

“There are thousands of rocks that orbit the Sun close to Earth and monitoring their activity is hugely important for the protection of our planet,” Professor Coward said.

“It’s the smaller space rocks between 10 and 100 meters in diameter where current surveillance is missing.

“These rocks are often termed ‘city destroyers’ and you need to have high precision telescopes, like the Zadko telescope, to monitor these threats.

“The Zadko telescope’s location is pivotal and provides a fantastic resource to monitor what could be a significant threat to our planet’s survival.”

The team working on the ESA project includes UWA’s Department of Physics and the University of Poznan in Poland, as well as support for the telescope through UWA Faculty of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for gravitational wave discovery (OzGrav).

Earth is constantly bombarded by small meteors and bolides, but most are too small to cause any damage and harmlessly burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.

If objects are large enough, they will pass through the atmosphere and hit the Earth (land or oceanic) which can cause a large-scale devastation.

Some famous examples of this are:

  • The impact that killed the dinosaurs roughly 66 million years ago
  • The Tunguska event which was an air-burst in 1908, but flattened forest trees in a 2,000km radius zone
  • The Chelyabinsk meteor of 2013 which exploded over the Russian city it’s named after, shattering windows and injuring people

The Earth itself is scarred with historical impact craters, many having been eroded over the millennia – but a few remain. Famous impact craters in Australia include Wolfe Creek and Gosses Bluff.

“This is why the European Space Agency’s affiliates approached UWA,” said UWA OzGrav Dr. Bruce Gendre. “The Zadko Telescope responds instantly and automatically to European Space Agency alerts to track objects in space near Earth.”

Zadko Observatory Manager John Moore said the contract was perfectly timed. “It comes after the telescope has just had significant upgrades including a new mirror coating which has improved its sensitivity ten times to what it was previously,” he said.

This is not the first time the Zadko telescope has been used in collaborative projects. In 2016, both the Zadko and Parkes telescope embarked upon a project to detect Fast Radio Bursts – mysterious radio flashes from space – in a project called SUPERB (Survey for Pulsars and Extragalactic Radio Bursts).

In addition to this, the Zadbo telescope was the first telescope in the world to detect the electromagnetic counterpart of the 2017 binary neutron star merger, which produced gravitational waves that were picked up by LIGO.