A UK Flotilla To Study Earth-Grazing Asteroids

Press Release From: Open University
Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2003

On 30 June 1908, the seemingly endless forests of Siberia received an unwelcome and unexpected visit by an intruder from deep space. As it plunged headlong through the Earth's atmosphere, the incoming asteroid exploded a few miles above the tree tops, flattening the forest over an area about 50 km (30 miles) in diameter. If the 60 metre (200 ft) wide chunk of rock had arrived a few hours later, it could have destroyed a city the size of London or Paris.

Exactly how many of these threatening objects are lurking unseen in the depths of the Solar System no one knows, but scientists estimate that events such as Tunguska occur on average once every 200 years. Larger objects arrive less frequently but pack a much greater punch.

How can we find out more about these Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and possibly find a way of preventing them from sending the human race the way of the dinosaurs? One way is to send spacecraft to study them at close range.

At the UK/Ireland National Astronomy Meeting in Dublin, Simon Green (Open University) will describe SIMONE (Smallsat Intercept Missions to Objects Near Earth), a UK-led proposal to launch a fleet of low-cost microsatellites that will individually rendezvous with different types of Earth-grazing asteroids. This would be the first interplanetary microsatellite mission.

With the first spacecraft costing less than 50 million Euro and additional satellites costing 30 million Euro each, a flotilla of five could be launched as a piggyback payload on an Ariane 5 rocket for the normal budget of one spacecraft.

Each 120 kg microsatellite would be despatched to a different target, using onboard solar electric propulsion driven by lightweight, high power solar arrays, a technology in which the UK is a world leader. After rendezvous with the asteroid, five state-of-the art experiments would map its surface in great detail, in addition to determining its mass, density and composition.

"SIMONE would greatly improve our knowledge and understanding of the diverse NEO population," said Dr. Green. "The data would be crucial for the development of effective methods to deflect different types of objects that might impact the Earth in the future."

Assuming a launch by Ariane 5 in 2008 and arrivals 2010-11, the provisional target list includes:

  • 1989 UQ a C-type Aten asteroid between 560 and 760 m in diameter
  • 2001 CC21 an X-type Apollo asteroid with diameter between 390 and 1100 m
  • 1996 FG3 a 1100 m diameter C-type Apollo asteroid with a large moon
  • 1982 DB (Nereus) an X-type Apollo asteroid with diameter between 470 and 1330 m
  • 1999 YB an S-type Apollo asteroid with diameter of about 640 m

SIMONE+, a larger spacecraft built using the same design principles could provide a low-cost option for longer range interplanetary missions including Mars.

Notes for editor


Normal contact details:

Dr. Simon F. Green
Space Science Research Group
Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
Tel: +44 (0)1908-659601
Fax: +44 (0)1908-858022

Nigel Wells
QinetiQ Ltd.
Room G061
Arthur C. Clarke Building
Cody Technology Park
GU14 0LX
Tel: +44 (0)1252-395791
Fax: +44 (0)1252-393009


The mission design and feasibility study for SIMONE was recently completed under contract to ESA as part of a Near Earth Objects Space Mission Preparation contract. The mission responds directly to one of the key recommendations of the UK Task Force Report on NEOs, issued in September 2000.

The SIMONE mission study team is led by QinetiQ (UK) in partnership with the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute (PSSRI) of the Open University (UK), SciSys (UK), Politecnico di Milano (Italy) and Telespazio (Italy).

A typical SIMONE payload would include:

  • A Multispectral Imaging System, a camera to measure the asteroid's size, shape, topography, morphology and albedo.
  • A Radio Science Investigation to determine the asteroid's mass from its gravitational influence on the spacecraft trajectory.
  • An X-ray Spectrometer to determine its elemental composition.
  • An Infrared Spectrometer for mapping minerals and surface variations.
  • A Laser Altimeter to measure the surface topography and range from the spacecraft.

The explosion of the 1908 Tunguska object released energy equivalent to a modern nuclear warhead, about 10 megatons or 500 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

The 2003 UK/Ireland National Astronomy Meeting is hosted by the Astronomical Science Group of Ireland (ASGI) with support from (inter alia) the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Armagh Observatory, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Trinity College Dublin, the Royal Irish Academy and the British Council.

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