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High-Flying Asteroid Scouts

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by Andrei Kislyakov
Political Commentator RIA Novosti
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Jan 21, 2008
It looks as though the international space-monitoring community is in for fresh reinforcements, although not a new James Bond. On the agenda are plans to set up a ground- and space-based deep space search network, first on a regional and later on a global basis.

Meanwhile, the new year for Russia's Center for Planetary Protection Against Asteroids began with a statement by its director Anatoly Zaitsev, who spoke of the need to create a space segment of the ground-based surveillance system, while at the same time improving the latter.

Meanwhile, the threat of asteroids, if not impressively great at the moment, is quite real and formidable. The danger is that a lack of complete information about the threat of asteroids could have a fatal effect on our capability to take adequate measures. But what kind of "beast" are these asteroids?

An asteroid is a small planet-like body of the solar system (a dwarf planet). The largest known is Ceres, which measures 970 by 930 kilometers. Asteroids differ in size; the smallest can be as tiny as a speck of dust, but scientists think there may be up to half a million asteroids of more than one and a half kilometers in diameter.

The rapid development of astronomy, especially in the mid-1920s, resulted in a series of discoveries, including the threat of asteroids.

A vivid imagination, coupled with imperfect measuring techniques, has often created doomsday predications. For example, in 1949, Australian astronomers predicted the destruction of Earth by the asteroid Icarus, discovered in 1566.

Their estimates showed that as Icarus approached the Earth in 1968, it would fall into the Indian Ocean off of Africa. The impact would be equivalent to the detonation of 1,000 hydrogen bombs.

Soviet and American astronomers checked the Australian calculations and laid fears to rest. Icarus would indeed come close to Earth, but the distance was of an astronomical scale. At their shortest distance, the two bodies would still be 6.5 million kilometers apart.

Modern calculations show that asteroids can approach Earth or other planets of the solar system quite close by space standards. That is what worries astronomers the most. A fairly large number of asteroids could, in scientists' view, "attack" the Earth. However, it should be remembered that regular observations began only about ten years ago, which explains the large numbers of asteroids "suddenly" invading Earth's near space.

Nevertheless, the astronomical community held a special conference in the summer of 1996 dedicated to the threat of asteroids. Space equipment developers who also attended the conference helped to create counter-measures.

Intuition did not let astronomers down. Next year they discovered a potentially dangerous asteroid, 1997 XF11, and NASA quickly responded by setting up a new service - the Near-Earth Object Program Office (NEOPO) - called upon to coordinate the search for and monitoring of space objects that posed a threat.

NEOPO hopes to identify up to 90% of the 2,000 known asteroids and comets of more than one kilometer in diameter that may approach Earth. They are large and weigh enough to cause a global disaster, but are very difficult to detect in the skies. Many observatories and space agencies must, therefore, join forces to look for such comets and asteroids.

In 1999, American and European scientists, with the help of the automatic telescope LINEAR, discovered asteroid 1999 AN10. When Italian researchers from the University of Pisa established the orbit of the new body, it emerged that the asteroid would pass by Earth several times during the next 600 years.

In 2039, there is even the risk of a collision, although the odds are small - about 1 in 1,000,000,000. True, there are two more black dates: one in 2044 and another in 2046. The collision chances in 2046 are slight - only one in five million, but the probability that Earth may find itself on a collision course in 2044 is ten times higher: 1 to 500,000.

Ground facilities are not enough to ensure Earth's safety. American specialists do not deny that it was almost by chance that they detected a large asteroid which on January 30 of this year will closely fly by Mars, and may even impact it.

Zaitsev said: "There will be no guaranteed information about potentially hazardous asteroids until a space-based segment of the deep space surveillance system is established. The Americans have already agreed that without a space segment the search for such dangers will be random and pointless."

For Russia, meanwhile, a constellation of space scouts is of vital importance. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it found most of its ground-based observation infrastructure outside its borders. Besides, Russia's space radars and its Okno (Window) space-monitoring complex in Tajikistan can only track objects within 40,000 kilometers. They are in a position to warn Earth's residents of an impending danger only 10 to 60 minutes before a threatening asteroid enters the atmosphere.

The expression "our borders are tightly sealed," unacceptable in daily practice between countries, becomes very relevant when it comes to uninvited guests from space.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Europe's largest automated spacecraft cleared for lift-off The European Space Agency's (ESA) Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) Jules Verne has received the green light for its first flight in February 2008. The pressurised module of the largest, most complex automated spacecraft ever developed in Europe has been inspected and closed, fulfilling the most stringent rules of human space flight. The 20-tonne ATV is now set to re-supply the International Space Station (ISS), the research project among the space agencies of a number of European countries (ESA), the United States (NASA), Russia (RKA), Japan (JAXA), and Canada (CSA). As the first human-rated spacecraft to be launched from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana (situated in the northeast of South America), Jules Verne represents a milestone in some 40 years of European space activity. The safety inspection clearance confirms that all is firmly on track for the scheduled launch in less than a month.

ESA's ATV Deputy Project Manager Patrice Amadieu said, 'In order to eliminate any risk of disease or contamination for the astronauts on board the ISS, we have disinfected all the surfaces inside the pressurised module with pure hydrogen peroxide. Even if it is launched unmanned, Jules Verne respects all the human spacecraft safety requirements. This also applies to the seven tonnes of cargo carried into orbit.'

Over a period of five days, the cabin's interior was first disinfected, filled with approximately 1 300 kg of "dry cargo" (including 500 kg of food, 80 kg of clothing and several kilograms of spare parts) and then disinfected a second time.

The ATV's tanks were also filled with some 268 l of drinking water for the ISS astronauts. Once in orbit, the water will be transferred via hoses to small portable containers or to the main tank on the Russian Service Module, where Jules Verne will be docked for four months.

'Before closing the aft rear door of the pressurised module [through which the cargo was loaded], we inspected one last time the entire cabin to be sure that everything was secured for the launch and safely placed where the ISS crew will expect the different items to be. After working for seven years on the programme, it was a special feeling to be the last person inside Jules Verne before it is launched into orbit,' said Charlotte Beskow, ESA engineer in charge of on-orbit crew operations.

Furthermore, until launch, the air inside the pressurised module will be analysed regularly to be sure that cargo off-gassing (caused by objects that emit odours and odourless gases that can endanger the cabin environment and signify a serious concern in space) will not alter the quality of the air brought into orbit and then mixed with the ISS's atmosphere. This process ensures that the air the astronauts breathe is clean, and free from particles, bacteria and microbes.

The ATV's launch preparation campaign began in August 2007. On 15 December, the two major pieces of the ATV (a pressurised payload unit and an avionics/propulsion unit) were carefully joined. In its final configuration state, the size of the ATV resembles that of a double-decker bus.

Jules Verne will be transferred to a site for integration atop a special Ariane 5 launcher, in time for the scheduled launch and maiden voyage to the International Space Station in February 2008.

Source: RIA Novosti

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Alaska researcher changes asteroid orbit
Anchorage, Alaska (UPI) Jan 8, 2008
An astrophysicist at the University of Alaska uncovered the information that narrowed the odds of an asteroid hitting Mars.

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