FlyEyes for Planetary Defense

ESA’s Flyeye telescope, nestled within the building in this artist’s illustration from 2018, will be the first in a potential network of four telescopes across the globe, that together will have the ability to run nightly surveys of the entire sky, automatically scanning for near-Earth objects – potentially hazardous space rocks that could impact our planet. (Source: ESA)

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. ESA is developing new ‘flyeye’ telescopes to conduct automated nightly sky surveys as part of Europe’s efforts to protect our planet.

ESA asteroid experts work with other space agencies and European civil protection authorities to devise mitigation measures. ESA also supports asteroid warning and risk assessment activities at the United Nations, in cooperation with experts from the IAU and worldwide. (Source: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

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. While no network can spot all potentially hazardous objects, under favorable conditions the Flyeye network will detect everything down to about forty meters 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. “This revolutionary technology is fundamental to ESA’s first survey network,” says Rüdiger Jehn, ESA’s head of planetary defense. “Providing Europe with the independent capacity to spot asteroids that could pose an impact risk”.

In ESA’s Flyeye telescope, a single mirror of one-meter equivalent aperture collects the light from the entire 6.7° × 6.7° field of view and feeds a pyramid-shaped beam splitter with 16 facets. The complete field of view is then imaged by 16 separate cameras that contain 16 detectors. The tubes contain a set of secondary lenses. (Source: ESA, A. Baker)

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° × 6.7° or about 45 square degrees. For context, the Sun and the Moon are 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 soon be installed near the top of the 1865-meter Monte Mufara in Sicily, Italy. “Our goal is that by 2030, Europe can provide early warning for hazardous asteroids larger than forty meters 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.” (Source: ESA)

Link: Space Safety, European Space Agency ESA, Paris, France

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