New telescope to track near-Earth objects becomes operational

The European Space Agency’s Test-Bed Telescope 2 (TBT2) – a technology demonstrator to scan and identify near-Earth objects – has begun operation at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Working alongside its Northern Hemisphere partner telescope, TBT2 will keep a close eye on the night sky for asteroids that could pose a risk to Earth.

Part of the world-wide effort to scan and identify near-Earth objects, the project, which is a collaboration between the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA), “is a test-bed to demonstrate the capabilities needed to detect and follow-up near-Earth objects with the same telescope system”, said Clemens Heese, ESA’s Head of the Optical Technologies Section, who is leading this project.

The TBT project aims to show that the software and hardware work as expected.

The 56-cm telescope at ESO’s La Silla and TBT1, its identical counterpart located at the ESA’s deep-space ground station at Cebreros in Spain, will act as precursors to the planned ‘Flyeye’ telescope network, a separate project that ESA is developing to survey and track fast-moving objects in the sky.

This future network will be entirely robotic; software will perform real-time scheduling of observations and, at the end of the day, it will report the positions and other information about the objects detected.

“The start of observations of TBT2 at La Silla will enable the observing system to work in its intended two-telescope configuration, finally fulfilling the project’s objectives,” said Heese.

Age-old threat

The Earth has been periodically bombarded with both large and small asteroids for billions of years, and the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor event in Russia, which caused some 1,600 injuries, most due to flying splinters and broken glass, further raised the public’s awareness of the threat posed by near-Earth objects.

Larger objects do more damage, but are easier to spot and the orbits of known large asteroids are already thoroughly studied.

However, it is estimated that there are large numbers of smaller, yet-undiscovered objects astronomers are unaware of that could do serious damage if they were to hit a populated area.

This is where TBT and the future planned network of Flyeye telescopes come in.

Once fully operational the network’s design will allow it to survey the night sky to track fast-moving objects, a significant advancement in Europe’s capacity to spot potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.

TBT is part of an ongoing inter-organisational effort to build a more complete picture of these objects and the potential risks they pose to humankind.

This project builds on ESO’s previous involvement in protecting the Earth from potentially dangerous near-Earth objects.

Both ESO and ESA are active in the United Nations-endorsed International Asteroid Warning Network and many observations of these objects have been performed with ESO’s telescopes.

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