Small Earth satellites contain the potential for amazing scientific and commercial opportunities.

Original author: Tania Fitzgeorge-Balfour
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Detection of small asteroids trapped in Earth orbit will provide an opportunity to increase our knowledge of asteroids and try out space travel technologies.

The discovery of mini-satellites of the Earth, small asteroids temporarily caught by gravity in Earth's orbit, will greatly improve the scientific understanding of both asteroids and the Earth-Moon system, according to a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Science. These small and fast moving guests have not yet been detected with existing technology; today there is only one confirmed discovery of a mini-satellite. The commissioning of the large LSST telescope will help confirm their existence and track their movements around our planet, which will provide us with amazing scientific and commercial opportunities.

“Mini-satellites can be interesting laboratories for testing scientific knowledge and technology in near space. These asteroids reach Earth from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter due to gravitational interaction with the Sun and the planets of the solar system, says Robert Jedik, lead author from the University of Hawaii at Honolulu. “The problem is finding these small objects — it's difficult even despite their proximity to us.”

“At the present time, we do not fully understand the composition of the asteroids,” adds Mikael Granvik, co-author of the work, working at the Luleovsky Institute of Technology in Sweden and at the University of Helsinki in Finland. “Missions usually bring a tiny amount of material back to Earth. Meteorites make it possible to indirectly study asteroids, but the Earth’s atmosphere destroys weak materials as they fall. ”

“Mini-satellites are an ideal target that will allow you to bring with you quite large pieces of asteroid material, protected by a spacecraft, so that you can then carefully study them on Earth.”

It is believed that mini-satellites are from 1 to 2 meters in diameter, and temporarily gravitationally tied to the Earth-Moon system. They can fly past the Earth or make one turn around it, and eventually run away from the gravitational pull of our planet, or enter the atmosphere.

After studying the results of mini-satellite research over the past ten years, Djedik and his colleagues show that the existing technologies are able to detect these small and fast moving objects only by chance.

“Mini satellites are small, and their speed across the sky exceeds the ability to detect most asteroid surveys,” explains Djedik. “So far, we have only found one mini-satellite in orbit around the Earth, this is a relatively large 2006 RH120 object with a diameter of only a few meters.”

LSST, which is being built, should be commissioned in the next few years. It is hoped that he will be able to confirm the existence of mini-satellites and help track their orbits around the Earth. This paper, which is part of a collection of articles describing the vicinity of the Earth-Moon system, highlights the possibilities that will emerge from the detection of mini-satellites.

“LSST is a dream tool for detecting small and fast-moving asteroids, and we hope that it will continuously detect temporarily captured objects on an ongoing basis, and will begin work in the next five years,” says Djedik. "He will have a giant mirror that collects light from dim objects, and a camera with a huge field of view capable of covering the entire sky at least once a week."

“As soon as we start finding mini-satellites more often, they will be ideal targets for satellite missions. We will be able to launch short, low-cost missions, and use them as landfills for larger space missions, and enable the emerging asteroid mining industry to test their technologies. ”

“We don’t know whether small asteroids will turn out to be monolithic blocks of stone, fragile heaps of sand, or something in between,” says Granvik. “Mini-satellites that linger long enough in orbit around the Earth allow us to study the density of these bodies and the forces acting inside them, which will allow us to solve this mystery.”

Djedik summarizes what he said, sharing his expectations: "I hope that someday people will go to the solar system to study planets, asteroids and comets, and I consider mini-satellites as the first steps of this journey."

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