The primary payload of the newly launched NEOSSat (Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite), to be operated by the Canadian Space Agency, is a 15-centimetre telescope to look out for asteroids and space debris. Unfortunately though, NEOSSat is unlikely to have been able to see the meteor that exploded near Chelyabinsk, even if it had been launched in time. That particular body is estimated at around just 17 meters, considerably smaller than the one that caused the famous Tunguska event and is typical of a little-known, but numerous family of tiny space bodies.
Fortunately, however, such events are rare and, to the best of our knowledge, occur mostly in less uninhabited planetary regions. The more frequent and potentially dangerous space hazards are man-made, and precisely what the new Roscosmos system will aim to prevent.
According to the published terms, Roscosmos is awaiting applications for the development between 2013 and 2015 of a warning system against identifiable dangers in near-Earth space. The initial cost of the contract is set at 86 million roubles. The system, to be developed by November 25, 2013, is also embedded in the current Federal space program, in effect until 2015 and applications should be submitted no later than 10 a.m., March 26.
The primary aim of the system is to prevent situations that could be dangerous to spacecraft arising from man-made space debris as well as from natural space hazards. The system will also be used to set launch times for new missions and forecast spacecraft escaping from their orbits.
There are around 800 operational satellites currently in orbit, the vast majority of objects orbiting the planet are decommissioned spacecraft, launchers’ upper stages, and other fragments. Manoeuvres to avoid collisions have already become routine for the International Space Station and other satellites in low-Earth orbit. The wider use of unpowered micro-satellites may ultimately exacerbate the situation as they have no means of leaving orbit once their operational life ends.
Both dangers, natural and artificial, require vigilance but a viable system has yet to be proposed for early warning of space dangers from smaller objects that are still large enough to cause considerable damage. Moreover, as such impacts are rare, as many experts point out, there is little sense in developing a system which would only prove its worth once every century. Similar projects for hunting near-Earth asteroids, which are run by many countries, are mostly science-oriented and exploit facilities that also have other scientific or engineering uses.
Ironically, the best protection against a meteorite strike came from a Chelyabinsk elementary school teacher who told the children to duck under their desks and quickly opened building's glass doors. While we will not always be able to predict a strike, it is still vital that people are given the knowledge to protect themselves, and, if nothing else, that kind of defence comes a lot cheaper than a new space programme.