Look out below! Earth’s solar system is strewn with flying objects. Rocks, ice, comets, and asteroids plunge through the cosmos, sometimes passing close to—or even striking—Earth. A new asteroid detection system based on a bug’s eye could offer protection.
Scientists have recorded more than 900,000 asteroids in the Solar System. About 25,000 of them have orbits that bring them quite close to Earth. The European Space Agency (ESA) keeps a “risk list” of more than 1,000 such objects. Researchers from NASA also keep close tabs on NEOs, or Near-Earth Objects. Scientists worldwide track NEOs that pose even the remotest risk of colliding with Earth.
In 2013, a large meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia. Some 7,200 buildings in six cities sustained damage from the explosion’s violent shock wave. About 1,500 people received serious injuries, mostly due to flying glass and splinters.
Such massive asteroid events are rare. Nevertheless, scientists say tens of thousands of NEOs are hurtling through space at all times. Many haven’t yet been detected. But each could cause major damage if it struck a populated area.
Until now, astronomers have used telescopes that see only narrow slices of the vast sky. But ESA has begun developing telescopes with multiple lenses.
God made the humble housefly with the ability to see nearly 360 degrees, almost a full circle! Scientists used the insect’s eye—specifically how it splits an image into smaller images—as a model for their newest telescopes. The scopes divide the sky into 16 smaller images. Doing so enlarges the field of view, similar to God’s technique in the fly’s compound eye.
The European Southern Observatory and the ESA new telescope network is even called Flyeye. The four telescopes of Flyeye will be fully robotic. They will scan the night sky for fast-moving objects. Computers will flag any that could become a threat.
As a forerunner for the Flyeye network, two other telescopes are monitoring NEOs. The first is the Test-Bed Telescope 1 (TBT1) in Spain. It has been operating since 2015. TBT2 is a 22-inch telescope in Chile. TBT2 captured its first images this spring. The twin scopes will test whether two devices can detect and track the same object in space.
The first Flyeye telescope will be installed in Italy next year. “To calculate the risk [of NEOs]. . ., we first need a census of these objects,” La Silla Observatory (Spain) Director Ivo Saviane explains. “The TBT project is an important step in that direction.”