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Canadian satellites to help combat threat of collisions in Earth orbit – CBC.ca

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Humans produce a lot of garbage here on Earth. It turns out we produce a lot of it in space, too.

There are an estimated 20,000-plus satellites and pieces of debris orbiting Earth. These satellites can be operational or defunct, and the debris is left over from the thousands of spent rocket stages or the result of collisions that have produced smaller pieces.

It’s these collisions that are of particular concern, especially with more and more private companies and countries launching satellites into space.

While this may not sound like something that poses a threat to our daily life, the fact is that it could disrupt it in many ways, with the two main threats being to the lives of astronauts in space, as well as the threat to the satellites we depend on each day.

One Canadian company wants to decrease the chance of these collisions.

On Tuesday, Montreal-based NorthStar Earth & Space announced that in 2022 it plans to launch the first commercial constellation — a collection of satellites — to reduce the threat of the collision of objects in space. Thales Alenia Space will build the first three satellites in the Skylark constellation with Seattle’s LeoStella, overseeing the final assembly.

This illustration shows how NorthStar’s constellation will track satellites in Earth orbit. (NorthStar Earth & Space)

“People tend to forget that today, we actually depend on spaceflight. When you look at your smartphone, 40 per cent of the apps they have, they rely to some degree on data from space — let it be the weather forecast, let it be the navigation app that relies on GPS satellites, TV broadcasting and sometimes the phone connection itself” said Holger Krag, head of the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany. 

“They all go via satellite. So if we don’t have satellites, we will quickly realize what is missing.”

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), over the past 20 years, there have been roughly 12 accidental breakups annually in low-Earth orbit

While current technology relies mostly on ground-based telescopes to track potentially dangerous space debris and satellites, NorthStar will have satellites equipped with telescopes in orbit around Earth, bringing the accuracy of tracking within metres. 

“We’ve got the International Space Station up there. We’ve got astronauts going back and forth. We’ve got stuff flying around from a bunch of satellites and constellations,” said Stewart Bain, NorthStar’s CEO. “You want to make sure you know where things are with metre precision, not kilometre precision.”

Close calls

On Oct. 16, a dead Russian satellite and a spent Chinese rocket stage missed each other by a mere 11 metres, extremely close in Earth-orbit terms. 

In January, there was a similar incident.

And in September, the International Space Station was forced to conduct an “avoidance manoeuvre” in order to avert a collision with an unknown piece of space debris.

They are all examples of just how frequent these potential collisions are.

Though satellites are tracked by countries, such as the U.S. Air Force’s Combined Space Operations Center, there are private companies, such as LeoLabs in Menlo Park, Calif., that also monitor the busy space around Earth. However, most rely on telescopes here on Earth.

The problem with that is, ground-based telescopes aren’t as accurate and can be taken out of service due to inclement weather. 

That’s the benefit of having satellites in space directly monitoring objects, Bain said.

ESA’s Krag said that NorthStar’s plan is a good step in getting more accurate information as to how close satellites might be to one another.

“As soon as the data comes in, it’s accurate. It’s more accurate in particular than anything else we have,” he said. “In space, you can observe all the time when you have an optical sensor because you’re not dependent on weather conditions. You can basically position yourself in a way that you always have the objects in sunlight.… I think that’s a very promising solution.”

However, he said that there are also challenges, such as how fast the object will pass in the tracking satellite’s line of sight, so the sensor will need to be very fast. 

Krag also noted while there’s a worrying trend that there is more debris being created by collisions or other means, the good news is that more rockets are being better disposed of and more satellites are being put into orbits where they can re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and break up as they descend. 

Still, with a new space economy, Bain said that it’s becoming increasingly important to ensure that our satellites are protected, even if it’s not something most people think about on a daily basis. 

“We rely on space to monitor our crops, to monitor food production, to monitor the quality of water, to monitor the weather, telecoms, everything,” Bain said. “We rely on space, but we take it for granted.”

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This rocks! Western University student spots never-before-seen asteroid – Kingston This Week

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A Western University astronomy student from Chatham, who’s been stargazing since he was a kid, has discovered an asteroid through remote access to a telescope in Spain.

Graduate student Cole Gregg, 22, was using a telescope based at an observatory known as Astrocamp to troll the night sky when he spotted the small, fast-moving, flashing object.

His find — an asteroid estimated to be about 50 to 100 metres long — came after months of seeing nothing notable during his studies. It was, to put it mildly, “unexpected,” Gregg said Wednesday.

“It was quite shocking. You are not really ready for it,” he said. “It takes you by surprise and it was very exciting.”

Using the telescope located on a Spanish mountaintop, Gregg said he observed the asteroid as it sped close to Earth, moving through near-space across Europe.

Gregg’s astronomy professor, Paul Wiegert, called it “a rare treat to be the first person to spot one of these visitors to our planet’s neighbourhood.”

Added Wiegert: “Astronomers around the globe are continuously monitoring near-Earth space for asteroids so this is certainly a feather in Cole’s cap.”


Western astronomy student Cole Gregg monitors the night skies. Gregg discovered the asteroid ALA2xH a week ago.

Gregg spotted the asteroid, given the temporary designation ALA2xH, on Nov. 18. Data collected about the asteroid was sent to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., to determine whether the observation was unique or not.

From there, it goes on their near-Earth object confirmation page.

Gregg used a website called Itelescope, which allows the public to access telescopes via the internet.

“A lot of people use them for the pretty astrophotography pictures, but they are quite capable of science as well,” Gregg said. “My project is proving that these small telescopes are quite capable of science.”

Despite their efforts, Gregg said they have not spotted the asteroid again “due to weather and unavailability of the telescopes.”

Gregg said he has been fascinated with space since he was camping as a boy and relished looking up at stars in the dark skies. “It sparked my interest.”

After completing his PhD in astronomy, he hopes to continue his research and teach.

“I’m interested in asteroids and comets and how they move, how they exist in the solar system and where they come from,” he said. “And how we can learn from our own solar system to understand . . . other solar systems in the galaxy.”

HRivers@postmedia.com


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Dinosaur-era bird with scythe-like beak sheds light on avian diversity – CANOE

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“Amazing, small, delicate, fragile, challenging to study – all at the same time,” said Ohio University anatomy professor Patrick O’Connor, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature.

An illustration depicting the bird Falcatakely forsterae amidst non-avian dinosaurs and other creatures 68 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period in Madagascar. Photo by Illustration by Mark Witton /Handout via REUTERS

“Bird fossils are particularly rare in part because they have such delicate skeletons. Hollow bones aren’t great at surviving the fossilization process,” added paleontologist and study co-author Alan Turner of Stony Brook University in New York.

“Because of this, we need to be aware that we are probably under-sampling the Mesozoic diversity of birds. A newly discovered species like Falcatakely provides a taste of the tantalizing possibility of a greater diversity of form waiting to be discovered,” Turner said.

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Birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs about 150 million years ago. Early birds retained many ancestral features including teeth. The Falcatakely fossil has a single conical tooth in the front part of the upper jaw. Falcatakely probably had a small number of teeth in life.

It belonged to an avian group, enantiornithines, that did not survive the mass extinction event 66 million years ago, ending the Cretaceous Period.

“Unlike the earliest birds such as Archaeopteryx, which in many ways still looked dinosaurian with their long tails and unspecialized snouts, enantiornithines like Falcatakely would have looked relatively modern,” Turner said.

It was in the underlying skeletal structure where its differences were more apparent, O’Connor added, with more similarities to dinosaurs like Velociraptor than modern birds.

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Dinosaur-era bird with scythe-like beak sheds light on avian diversity – Calgary Sun

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Article content continued

“Amazing, small, delicate, fragile, challenging to study – all at the same time,” said Ohio University anatomy professor Patrick O’Connor, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature.

An illustration depicting the bird Falcatakely forsterae amidst non-avian dinosaurs and other creatures 68 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period in Madagascar. Photo by Illustration by Mark Witton /Handout via REUTERS

“Bird fossils are particularly rare in part because they have such delicate skeletons. Hollow bones aren’t great at surviving the fossilization process,” added paleontologist and study co-author Alan Turner of Stony Brook University in New York.

“Because of this, we need to be aware that we are probably under-sampling the Mesozoic diversity of birds. A newly discovered species like Falcatakely provides a taste of the tantalizing possibility of a greater diversity of form waiting to be discovered,” Turner said.

More On This Topic

Birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs about 150 million years ago. Early birds retained many ancestral features including teeth. The Falcatakely fossil has a single conical tooth in the front part of the upper jaw. Falcatakely probably had a small number of teeth in life.

It belonged to an avian group, enantiornithines, that did not survive the mass extinction event 66 million years ago, ending the Cretaceous Period.

“Unlike the earliest birds such as Archaeopteryx, which in many ways still looked dinosaurian with their long tails and unspecialized snouts, enantiornithines like Falcatakely would have looked relatively modern,” Turner said.

It was in the underlying skeletal structure where its differences were more apparent, O’Connor added, with more similarities to dinosaurs like Velociraptor than modern birds.

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

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