Deep inside the Riga Technical University campus, a team of researchers is examining technology that will one day help prevent asteroids from hitting Earth.
The high-precision chronoscopes hand-built in the laboratory of the Latvian start-up Eventech are now used to track the movements of satellites.
This year, the company was awarded a contract by the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop tools that can evaluate the possibility of diverting an asteroid’s course before it gets too close to our planet.
The American NASA intends to launch the first phase of the AIDA mission next year to divert the trajectory of an asteroid and evaluate the impact of this operation – under the name of Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART).
Also, as part of DART, on July 22, 2021, a Falcon 9 rocket from Elon Musk’s Space X is to lift a 500-kilogram probe equipped with a camera, in the direction of the Didymos asteroid it is to strike. to change its current course which is likely to approach Earth in 2123.
Eventech’s chronoscopes are expected to be ready for the HERA follow-up mission, expected five years later to determine if this impact has actually moved the asteroid off course.
“Our new technology, which will equip ESA’s second spacecraft, called HERA, will measure whether the impact has taken Didymos away from its previous course, thus avoiding harming humanity,” Imants told AFP Pulkstenis. Eventech engineer.
“It is much more interesting to go where no man has ever been than to produce mundane consumer electronics with huge profits,” he insisted, borrowing the famous formula of Star Trek, the science fiction television series of the 1960s.
Eventech’s chronoscopes are part of this Baltic state’s tradition of space technology, which dates back to Soviet times when Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, was launched in 1957.
They measure the time it takes for a light pulse to reach and return to an orbiting object.
Eventech devices can record time measurements down to one picosecond – or one thousandth of a billionth of a second – allowing them to be converted into distance measurements with an accuracy of no more than two millimeters.
Chronoscopes for deep space
Each year, the Latvian laboratory produces a dozen chronoscopes to equip observatories around the world.
They allow you to observe the Earth’s atmosphere, increasingly congested by new waves of private satellites in addition to traditional scientific and military devices.
“Following them all requires adequate tools”, underlines Pavels Razmajevs, Director of Operations at Eventech.
Although Latvia did not become a full member of ESA until 2016, its engineers have followed satellites since the Soviet era.
The Latvian University has its own laser telemetry station located in a forest south of Riga.
To produce their devices, Eventech engineers use analog parts as much as possible because microchips need nanoseconds to evaluate the signal, too long for measurements calculated in picoseconds.
The physical length of the motherboard can also affect how fast the signal travels from one circuit to another.
While chronoscopes are being used for measurements from Earth, a different device designed for distant missions in space is being developed in another corner of the lab, intended to track different interplanetary objects from a probe. space in motion.
“There is no GPS coverage device on other planets, so you need to bring your own precision telemetry equipment with you,” explained Pulkstenis.
Developing devices for deep space is a very complex task, but this is what the engineers at Eventech appreciate the most.
“Our state-of-the-art technology has to withstand extreme temperatures in space and cosmic radiation,” Pulkstenis notes, but “it’s a pleasant challenge.”