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Canadian satellite launches Monday to stand on guard against meteors

This is an artist’s rendering of the NEOSSat satellite, which will be launched Monday Feb. 25, 2013 from India.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

There's a lot riding on NEOSSat and Sapphire, two Canadian satellites scheduled to be launched from India on Monday.

NEOSSat (Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite) could perhaps have proven quite useful had it been in place before a destructive meteor recently exploded over Russia.

David Cooper, the CEO of Microsat Systems Canada, says NEOSSat will be on the lookout for Aten asteroids which, every once and a while, will cross Earth's path.

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Atens are a group of near-Earth asteroids that orbit the sun elliptically and periodically cross Earth's orbital plane.

The Microsat executive said the space rock that streaked over Russia, causing numerous injuries, must have been an Aten asteroid.

"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," Cooper said from his office in Mississauga, Ont.

"If it had come down in the middle of New York City it would have made a lot more noise than it did."

He said that NEOSSat is designed to specifically look for Aten asteroids that can't be seen from the ground because of the scattering of the sun's light in the atmosphere.

"Once we detect and track them, we can project their orbit and then forecast ahead — sometimes years or decades [in advance] — where and when they will cross Earth's orbit.

"It will give us a lot more insight into the potential for these asteroids."

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The hope is that if we understand an asteroid's path, we could take measures to protect ourselves.

In a recent interview, Alan Hildebrand of the University of Calgary said studies are already being done to see how a threatening asteroid can be deflected.

The planetary scientist said one option would involve exploding a device near an asteroid while another would use a spacecraft to pull it away.

The $15-million suitcase-sized satellite, which will circle the Earth every 100 minutes from about 800 kilometres above, is the first space telescope dedicated to looking for potentially hazardous asteroids.

NEOSSat, which was built by Microsat Systems Canada, was jointly funded by the Canadian Space Agency and Defence Research and Development Canada.

Sapphire, Canada's first military satellite, will join NEOSSat on the launch pad Monday.

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A total of seven satellites will be launched aboard India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, at 7:25 a.m. ET. The launch had been postponed because work on an Indo-French satellite, the rocket's primary payload, was delayed.

National Defence describes Sapphire as the largest part of the Canadian surveillance system, intended to increase "space situational awareness."

The metre-long satellite, which weighs about 150 kilograms, will be used to support Canadian and international military operations and well as bilateral commitments such as NORAD.

Sapphire will contribute to the United States Space Surveillance Network, which currently tracks more than 22,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10 centimetres.

The data that's collected will be used to warn satellite operators of potential collisions as a result of space debris. A cliche among space professionals is that space has become "congested, contested and competitive."

Sapphire will be placed in a polar synchronous orbit, some 800 kilometres above the Earth. MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates was awarded a $65-million dollar federal contract to build the satellite.

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