Asteroid Hunters Around The World Just Spotted Something Incredible

Asteroid Hunters Around the World Just Spotted Something Incredible

If an asteroid were closing in on our planet, we'd know about it quickly thanks to a dedicated network of astronomers. But this week, the Near Earth Object Coordination Center (NEOCC) had its eyes fixed on something else: two Mars-bound spacecraft attempting to escape Earth's gravity well. And they did a bang-up job capturing the event in real-time. ExoMars — a joint European and Russian mission that will search for signs of life on the Red Planet — blasted off Earth aboard a Russian Proton rocket earlier this week. Because of the complex series of engine burns and orbital manoeuvres needed to propel the spacecraft out of Earth's orbit, it was twelve anxiety-inducing hours before the European Space Agency could declare the launch a success. But that long window gave the NEOCC a rare observing opportunity.

Using data on the predicted trajectory of ExoMars, the NEOCC determined that the spacecraft would be visible in the Southern hemisphere sky. Observing partners around the world were alerted, and over the course of the day, telescopes began to report sightings of a series of bright objects streaking away from us. The composite image below shows ExoMars and a jettisoned fuel tank, as seen a few hours after launch by telescopes in Australia and New Zealand:

Asteroid Hunters Around the World Just Spotted Something Incredible

Image Credit: NEO Coordination Centre / ESA

The coolest image by far, however, came later in the day, when ExoMars was scheduled to have a major engine burn that would finally propel it on an escape trajectory. The OASI Observatory in Brazil caught the event in action. In the image below (an annotated version of the one at the top), the ExoMars spacecraft are surrounded by discarded fragments of the Proton rocket's upper stage. It's simply incredible that we have the ability to witness a tiny craft, shedding unwanted luggage as it moves away from us at 32,200km per hour:

Asteroid Hunters Around the World Just Spotted Something Incredible

Image Credit: OASI Observatory team; D. Lazzaro, S. Silva

The entire observing campaign mimicked what would happen if a wayward asteroid, or a mysterious hunk of space trash, was on a collision course with our planet. It's comforting to know that such a network exists and is ready to mobilise in a jiffy should we discover a cosmic intruder on our doorstep. And if that same network can fill the role of a seriously badarse spaceflight photographer? Even better.


Image Credit: OASI Observatory team; D. Lazzaro, S. Silva

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    It is great to see astronomers looking out like this, but seriously, what could we really do to stop one? We would have no time to prepare. Im afraid this is an early warning system to let us know we are doomed. I have no problem with that, I just find it funny how humans think they have so much control.

      No time? We just got passed by an asteroid that will pass close by again in 10 years. Could we not have done something to slightly change it's course when it passed last time? The whole point of looking for them is to be able to do something long before they become a problem.

        I totally agree. But it's the "what are we going to do" part that concerns me mate. I love Astronomy, and I love that people are looking, my post wasn't against this, my point is, we, as a species aren't capable realistically/technologically of stopping a big one. Sure, we will know where its going to hit, when and how fast, but how can we use that information to save people, other then moving some out of the way, only to drown in say a 100 km high tsunami. As you know, if we are hit by a small one, 10kms across for example, its the end of nearly all life on earth, for a long time. Movies like Armageddon etc are pure fantasy, we have no technological means of diverting an asteroid of this size. We need to start developing and testing rockets to do the job. We have near misses all the time, lets start "practicing"? It takes a lot of years to develop that kind of tech, do you want to risk the chance of only starting when we really know? Lets start developing the tech to do, and have it ready to go. Cause I don't want to know about and then find out we will never get our shit together quick enough to actually prevent it.

        Then again, we could all use Homers backup plan and head for Flanders bomb shelter?

        Last edited 23/03/16 1:47 pm

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