24 February 2012
ARC astronomers are part of an international project that will look at ways of deflecting incoming asteroids.
Near-Earth-Objects (NEOs) are asteroids and comets whose orbits bring them close to the Earth, meaning that some will occasionally hit us.
The NEOShield project has been given €4 million by the European Union to bring together scientists, engineers and space mission analysts. The project team will assess the best methods to deflect an asteroid that threatens to impact the Earth.
At Queen's University, Professor Alan Fitzsimmons will lead the study into over 8,000 NEOs already discovered in terms of their physical properties, helping to study how they affect the various methods of mitigating an impact. They will also help identify the best target asteroids for a future space mission to test humanity's ability to avert a disaster.
Professor Fitzsimmons said “Our observations of the small asteroid 2008 TC3, just hours before it impacted in 2008, has shown us that it is important to fully understand the various types of object that can hit us.”
Aside from using existing observations of NEOs and purring others, the team will also carry out laboratory experiments and computer simulations. The results of these studies will inform the investigations into the various options of moving an asteroid out of harms way, from kinetic impactor through gravity tractor to nuclear deflection.
While European based, the team also includes experts from the USA and Russia. The project leader is Professor Alan Harris from DLR-Berlin, who holds an honorary chair an Queen's.
Professor Harris explained that “At the end of the three and a half years, we should not only have a better understanding of asteroids and a possible method of defence. We are also planning international space missions in a few years to test the defence methods we have been looking into.”
The NEOShield team is led by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), with other team members coming from Observatoire de Paris (France), Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (France), The Open University (UK), Fraunhofer Ernst-Mach-Institut (Germany), Queen's University Belfast (UK), Astrium GmbH (Germany), Astrium Limited (UK), Astrium S.A.S. (France), Deimos Space (Spain), SETI Institute Corporation, Carl Sagan Center (USA), TsNIIMash (Russia), University of Surrey (Great Britain).