Researchers in Canada developed a laser altimeter that is designed to map the surface of an asteroid located near the Earth and create a three-dimensional model of the space rock. The new technology is set to be included in NASA's Osiris mission for 2016.
Known as the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), the device was created by York University professor Michael Daly and his team of scientists. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which helped fund the development of the laser, will turn over the device to NASA as the agency's contribution to the scheduled Osiris mission to the Bennu asteroid.
Aside from producing 3D maps of Bennu, the OLA will also be used by scientists to study the organic material typically found on asteroids.
"From a science perspective, we need to understand the current state and the evolution of the asteroid," Daly said.
"The sample will provide a snapshot of materials available during the formation of the solar system."
By providing the OLA to the NASA mission, Canada will be given around 60 grams (2.1 ounces) of asteroid sample. According to the CSA, this will give scientists in the country an opportunity to examine a sample of pristine asteroid for the first time.
Compared to earlier altimeter designs, the OLA is made more accurate and able to process images at higher resolutions, making it possible for researchers to create better maps of Bennu's topography.
While most Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) devices are known to carry out mapping by staring straight at objects and base their movement on their spacecraft, Daly said that the OLA can perform a raster scan similar to how television sets with cathode-ray tubes work.
Instead of merely capturing a single measurement, the device allows researchers to take a range picture, which provides them with a higher fidelity of information.
Scientists are interested in studying Bennu because it has been identified as a potential threat to the Earth. The asteroid, which measures at around 500 meters (1,640 feet) in diameter, has a small chance of impacting the planet sometime in the 22nd century.
NASA plans to use the OLA to examine and monitor Bennu's movement on its orbit through accurate measurements of distances made by the Osiris spacecraft while on the asteroid's craggy surface.
Daly said that because the small size of asteroids, they are often pushed around by other forces, making it difficult to predict their movement over a long period of time. The mission to Bennu will help scientists keep track of asteroid movement in the future and determine collision probabilities with the Earth.