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Case studies

22 August, 2016

Searching the skies to protect the planet

Professor Alan Fitzsimons, Astrophysics Research Centre

Alan Fitzsimmons’s work takes him across the world to study what lies beyond it. The focus of his research is on finding and studying asteroids and comets which pass close to the earth, helping to develop strategies to deal with one if it is thought to present a possible danger. This involves close collaboration with major global institutions and organisations, including the University of Hawaii, Harvard University, the Observatoire de Paris, NASA, the Russian Space Agency, the University of Pisa, the Institute of Space Studies in Berlin and more.

Alan, Professor at Queen’s Astrophysics Research Centre, spoke after returning from six months research in Hawaii: ‘I’m currently involved with two major collaborations and teams. One is the Pan-STARRS project, the largest astronomical camera in the world, which is in Hawaii. I’ve been using data and working with the team there to assist in finding objects that orbit the sun, that pass close to the earth and which could one day hit us. ‘While I was there, a small asteroid hit the earth near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. That focused a lot of attention on the work we’re doing.’

In the first four months of 2013, with the Pan-STARRS telescope, over 100 previously unknown asteroids passing close to the earth were identified. ‘We’re finding hundreds of these things every year. While I was away in the USA I also helped organise an international meeting on planetary defence. We have these meetings every two years – scientists, engineers, mission planners, administrators from space agencies – discussing how we go about finding these things and what to do if we come across one that’s on a collision course.’

A second major collaboration is European focused, ‘although it also involves people from the USA and Russia. It’s called NEOShield – a title taken from Near-Earth Objects – a three-and-a-half-year study funded by a4m from the European Union to find out the best way to move an asteroid if we ever do find one that’s likely to hit us. ‘Several different technologies have been suggested, but we’ve never actually tried it in real life, never tried to change the path of an asteroid in its orbit. So we are now working on both space mission designs and choosing potential test targets. We have to pick an asteroid carefully, one that’s fairly representative, and at the same time we have to make sure that we can’t actually change the orbit so that it does hit the earth.’ The study will finish in 2016 and it is hoped that a test mission will happen in the early years of the next decade.

Near-Earth Objects have been around as long as the history of the solar system. ‘Every time we find a potentially dangerous asteroid or comet, astronomers immediately predict where it’s going to be in the next 100 years in order to know if we need to make more observations, if we need to continue to study precisely where it’s going, or if we can just forget about it because it’s not going to come anywhere near the earth at any time in the near future.’

He emphasises the importance of openness in this field of research. ‘Unlike some areas of science, when a new Near-Earth Object is found it’s immediately announced. There’s no keeping anything secret. We need as many observations as possible to track an object and one single telescope can’t do that. ‘We work across political boundaries, but the main discovery programmes are based in the USA. That’s one reason we at Queen’s are members of the Pan-STARRS consortium which has the best telescope at the moment for discovering these potentially dangerous objects. ‘We have a worldwide reputation in this field and that’s why you get invited into collaborations like this. Queen’s is seen as a natural partner for many of these studies and in fact we get many more invitations than we can accept. There are only 24hours in a day and there are many more Near-Earth Objects out there to discover and track.’