1st telescope tracking dangerous asteroids goes live in Russia

Sayan Solar Observatory © Petr Malinovskiy
A large-area telescope installed at observatory in Sayan Mountains has started its sky-watching mission. The LAT is expected to operate as an ‘early warning’ tool alerting scientists about space rocks passing in imminent proximity to our planet.

The AZT-33VM asteroid seeker is designed to execute rapid sky survey to spot and monitor potentially-dangerous space objects. The scientific instrument has been designed and constructed at LOMO (St. Petersburg) with assistance from Russian Academy of Science (RAS) and Roscosmos space agency.

“This is the first instrument of that kind in Russia, very powerful, capable of detecting remote [space] objects threatening Earth,” Izvestia daily cited Boris Shustov, scientific supervisor at Institute of Astronomy.

It takes just 30 seconds for the telescope to get data on any space extraterrestrial object 50 meters in size traveling in space at the distance of 150 million km (1 astronomical unit) away from Earth.

Sayan Solar Observatory © Korotkoruchko

“It means we can spot an object comparable to Tunguska meteorite,” said Shustov, chairing at space threat prevention expert group of RAS.

He explained that the fastest possible time such space rock could reach Earth is one month, a “worst case scenario” imaginable.

“Usually it takes years, so there is a chance now to discover potentially dangerous bodies a long time before they approach Earth,” Shustov said.

The AZT-33VM still needs estimated 500 million rubles (about US$7.5 million) investment to purchase abroad at least 20 photo detectors (matrix) to ‘cover’ the telescope’s entire large collecting surface. Once all detectors installed, the telescope will be capable of covering huge portion of the sky, the astronomer explained.

“This should be done definitely to push the matter through,” Shustov said.

Russia’s federal space program plans creation in 2016-2025 a fully-automated warning system detecting dangerous objects in near-Earth space. The program implies development of observation and data-processing systems along with means to influence space objects.

Probably the most ambitious and expensive “space guard” project is being developed in the US. The $100 million Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) consisting of four large area telescopes is already partly functioning.

Its first telescope PS1 is already operable and the second one is expected to become active this autumn. The matrix of the Pan-STARRS telescope has a record 1.4 billion pixel resolution.

A joint experiment of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) planned for 2022 will impact Didymoon, a companion of a larger asteroid Didymos (780 meters), with a heavy and fast-moving projectile in order to change orbits of both space objects. The result, if any, would be visible only in 2023.

Russian scientists believe that, at the present time, a nuclear explosion set off close to a dangerous asteroid remains the most effective means to change its trajectory, and thus escape an impact, TASS reported in January. The EU’s international NEOShield project, cooperating with Russian researchers, believes that as a first line of defense, space-borne nuclear warheads would do the job perfectly.