Spotting Earth-threatening asteroids is tough, partly because the sky is so big. However insects offer an answer, since they figured out long ago how to look in many directions at once.
As part of the global effort to hunt for risky celestial objects such as asteroids and comets, ESA is developing the automated Flyeye telescope to make nightly sky surveys.
This telescope is the first in a future network that would completely scan the sky, automatically identifying possible new near-Earth objects, or NEOs for short.
These potential new objects are checked the next morning by human operators, to be sure they are indeed real detections.
The collected data will then be submitted to the Minor Planet Center, triggering follow-up observations to better understand the near-Earth object’s orbit and chance of impact.
While no network can spot all potentially hazardous objects, under favourable conditions the Flyeye network will detect everything down to about 40 m in diameter, typically three weeks before a potential impact.
This new, European telescope splits each image into 16 smaller subimages, expanding its overall field of view – similar to the technique exploited by a fly’s compound eye.
Equivalent to a large telescope
These fly-eyed survey telescopes offer performance equivalent to a 1 m-diameter telescope, and provide a very large field of view of 6.7° x 6.7° or about 45 square degrees. For context, the entire sky makes up 360 degrees and the Moon is only half a degree across as viewed from Earth.
“The extremely wide field of the new telescopes will allow us to cover a large area of the sky in just one night," says Detlef Koschny, senior asteroid expert at ESA.
"This will reduce the chance that we miss any interesting object."
The first Flyeye telescope will be sat near the top of the 1865-metre Monte Mufara mountain in Sicily, Italy, nestled within the building in this artist’s illustration.
The Italian Space Agency (ASI) is responsible for developing the overall infrastructure going to the site — including the access road and power, water and data links — and ESA will deliver the telescope itself and prepare the building, including the telescope dome and associated structures.
“Our goal is that by 2030, Europe can provide early warning for hazardous asteroids larger than 40 m in size, about three weeks before any impact,” says Holger Krag, Head of ESA’s space safety activities.
“The development of the Flyeye, the first optical detector in ESA’s search and discovery activities, is a fundamental and exciting step.”
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