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Increased Momentum in Europe for Defence of Earth

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(EIRNS)—The team of researchers at the NEOShield program wants to present a first "mission design" in April, including the monitoring asteroids in deep space whose orbit could be a threat to Earth and protecting Earth from strikes by near-Earth objects (NEOS). Alan Harris, head of the research at the Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, says that a first investigative mission could begin by 2020. The mission design, compiling proposals from the institutes in France, Switzerland, Spain, Britain, Russia and the United States that are partners in NEOShield, is done at Astrium in Friedrichshafen, Germany.

Also facilities and staff of ESA’s SSA (Space Situational Awareness) program are used in cooperation by NEOShield.

Meanwhile, European Space Agency (ESA) spokesman Bernhard von Weyhe, at the agency’s space control center in Darmstadt, urged the governments to take the events on Feb. 15 seriously and make more funds available for an in-depth space-monitoring program. On that, Nicolas Bobrinsky, head of the SSA Program, used a press conference at the ESA space control center in Darmstadt today, to point out that what has been done so far, "is just a start, and we really have to place the search on a long-term effective footing by increasing our observational capabilities."

"In the future," he said, "ESA’s SSA program aims to establish a wide survey" based on a network of automated 1- meter-diameter telescopes. This system would scan the complete sky once per night for moving objects. It would be capable of detecting objects of the size of last week’s Russian event a few days before they enter the atmosphere, provided they are seen approaching from the dark sky. The SSA has already secured funding and a mandate from ESA Member States to develop a first prototype telescope, Bobrinski said, adding that "a total of four to six such telescopes would be needed for the complete survey." ESA has a program underway for constructing a Fly’s Eye Telescope, funded last November to the tune of 7 million euros. A prototype is currently being built in Italy, but the telescope could be sited on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where numerous observatories exist on Mount Teide.

Apart from determining the size of dangerous asteroids, it is crucial also to find out what the body consists of: the more heavy substances like iron it has, the more lethal impact it will have, and the more if it arrives at extremely high speed. The methods applied today are insufficient, as NEOShield’s Alan Harris has pointed out: It has been generally said that the fly-by asteroid 2012 D14 on Feb. 15 was 45-50 meters in diameter, but one "might be wrong by a factor of two," Harris warns. And Frank Brenker, a geologist at Frankfurt University who has been involved in analysis of meteorites and other space debris, warns that because of today’s very thin surveillance grid, even asteroids the size of 1 kilometer may sneak into the near-Earth zone without anybody spotting them in time. [RAP]