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A Is Detecting Distant Asteroids/NEOs from the ISS Possible?

  1. Mar 1, 2016 #1
    The B612 Foundation,



    is a nonprofit composed of astronauts, scientists and engineers dedicated to the cause of developing a technological early warning system to detect distant asteroids that might be future dangerous NEOs within the next twenty or thirty years similar to or worse than the one that hit Chelyabinsk, Russia a few years ago.

    It is easy to find asteroids that approach Earth from the Oort cloud/Kuiper belt regions that lie beyond the orbits of Mars or Jupiter. Even some amateur astronomers and various online citizen science grid computing projects have been doing this. But at present B612 has launched a donation campaign to raise about five hundred million dollars to launch an autonomous space telescope/probe into orbit between Earth and Venus, so that it can detect asteroids arriving from the "other side of the Sun", that is, moving past Mercury and Venus toward Earth, instead of past Jupiter and Mars toward Earth.

    So my question is this: Is it feasible that such potential NEO asteroids (i.e., on the "other side of the Sun") moving past Mercury and Venus toward Earth instead of past Jupiter and Mars toward Earth, can be detected and photographed from the International Space Station?

    Consider this hypothetical scenario: During a period of several weeks or months the ISS above the Earth could take a sequence of several photographs of the distant space around the Sun each time the ISS is on the night time side of the Earth's terminator. Would it be possible to use filters to block out the Sun's glare relative to the ISS during each sunrise when the photos are taken on the night side of the terminator and that helps a telescope take good pictures of distant stars and any possible distant NEO asteroids? If that is possible then these sequential photos that show distant bright objects on the other side of the Sun, later can be prepared to detect any asteroids that possibly might be moving in Earth's direction moving from the other side of the Sun (i.e., past Mercury/Venus/to Earth) but moving relative to the distant stars.

    If such asteroid detection is possible from the ISS it could save several hundred millions of dollars of cost expenditures over the span of several years.

    My background is graduate computer science/mathematics, not in physics/astronomy, except maybe for 20 physics credits or so I accumulated when I was an undergraduate. So I thought I should ask this question here.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 1, 2016 #2


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    hi there
    Welcome to PF :smile:

    You would still have the several $100 million getting the equip build, mounted in an appropriate module
    launched and attached to the ISS

    Am not really sure where your implied major cost saving would be ??

  4. Mar 3, 2016 #3
    Thanks very much for the Reply/insights.

    I could be wrong but at least intuitively speaking I think it would be far less possibility of a cost overrun or excessive cost expenditures (given already a 20 trillion $ US Federal deficit) if the ISS was "retrofitted" so it could detect NEOs coming into Earth space from the direction of Mercury and Venus, than for NASA to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars for the launching of a costly space probe in orbit somewhere between Mercury and Venus. And even if private contributions do raise the funds for Project Sentinel it still could take a very long time for the project to reach completion. Anyway I am sure cost accountants or operations research people could minimize the costs associated with using the ISS for such an asteroid detection venture.

    The point is I do think the B612 Foundation has the right idea but their Project Sentinel might take far too long to fund and to reach fruition. After all the Chelyabinsk impact did not wait for space probes to be built.

    Spaceship Earth is in deep trouble: Ebola, Zika, terrorism, and very unpredictable political leaders. To prevent a serious future asteroid impact it is going to take immediate international effort, cooperation and commitment and all within a minimal time window.
  5. Mar 3, 2016 #4

    Jonathan Scott

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    If it were possible to do the observations from Low Earth Orbit, the B612 foundation wouldn't be trying to put something into an orbit closer to the sun. One can obviously see objects far more clearly when one is closer to the sun than they are, because the sun lights them up and they are against a background which doesn't include bright objects.

    In Low Earth Orbit, when one is on the daylight side, there are problems seeing faint objects because of the sun, and on the night side, the earth gets in the way of viewing stuff closer to the sun, so it doesn't seem any more practical than using earth-based telescopes, which can obviously also be much larger than anything suitable for use on the ISS.
  6. Mar 3, 2016 #5


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    We do have a 'blind' spot in the sunward direction, but, the sun only obscures about half the sky on any given day as it circles the entire zodiac each year. Only asteroids in a near synchronous orbit with earth could remain in a sunward position for more than a few months. It is probably safe to assume this constitutes a small fraction of NEO's. I fail to perceive any real benefit in throwing money at additional NEO detection missions. Experts generally agree we have few, if any, viable defensive options in the case of an NEO detected only a short time [i.e., less than a year] prior to an earth impact.
  7. Mar 3, 2016 #6


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    Throwing money at additional NEO detection strategies might give us longer than "a short time" to do something. The asteroid that struck Chelyabinsk probably spent centuries making close approaches to Earth prior to its impact. We just didn't have the technology to see it.
  8. Mar 3, 2016 #7
    Okay, if we found out tomorrow that an asteroid was going to be here in exactly fifty years, does that give us enough time to do anything about it? Besides flee of course which would still be anything but trivial. No, current tech pretty much gives us the option to spend a few dozen years building a nuke out of anything suitable we can dig from anywhere we can reach and hoping we not only get it there in time but with correct timing.

    Fifty years ago we could get a few guys to the moon and back and fusion was twenty, maybe fifty years off. I think it would be mighty optomistic to think humanity, having discovered a killer NEO a week after the first moon landing, followed by a solid prediction of a close encounter five decades out, and marshalling the all of human cooperation and might would be able to watch from afar in comfort as the prediction unfolds right about now. There is of course no better motivator than survival but then again if taking to outer space was such a good bet for survival wouldn't you expect to see some groups making that move were it "easy" or indeed even "doable"? And you better believe we're currently desperately clinging to "doable" at times even on good old terra firma right now.

    Even discovering things on a hundreds of year trajectory really only begs further work on the detection technology just to back up past predictions, or else nobody's going to take you seriously until it's a decade out and nobody's worried about being ridiculed somehow. More resources going towards combing for problems we have no credible means for solving without some other massive undertaking in resources...

    It really points out the "growing up" period culture is going through right now, where we have gained the understanding that prayer won't save us but now can only place faith that "someone" will come up with a way to save us from doom. In the case of something like a global scale impact maybe ignorance would be bliss. The more-or-less current human animal has survived more than one bottleneck caused by colossal falling objects and the like. But, what would have happened, say, had those people posessed not only the foreknowledge of the inevitable, with its associated panic and fear, but also the means maybe not to ultimately affect the outcome of their plight but certainly to annihilate one another in squabble and disagreement as to what sould be done to save them from fate?
  9. Mar 4, 2016 #8


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    If we knew about the Chelyabinsk impactor 50 years ago we would have sunk a large amount of money into studying and destroying that thing. Tens of thousands of them would fit in the crater we made during the testing at the Bikini Atoll in 1946.
  10. Mar 4, 2016 #9
    There is absolutely no way I could see that being probable. Even if it was proven to a 75% margin within ten years of impact that it was heading for the great pyramids or something and we mounted an effort to save the target. Do you really think we're worried about 50 meter objects to that degree?

    Four times that size and nothing we've ever built comes close in destructive power. At km-diameter range, where people currently are preoccupied with at least a little foreknowledge, there is practically nothing we could imagine even on a decades timescale that would give us a chance to avert impact. Not to mention that vaporizing a coral reef on a planet's surface bears little similarity to blasting a rock in space. The whole of Earth gave a little when they set off Bikini, just not very much.
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