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Watching out for hazards: ESA opens asteroid centre
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ESA today inaugurated a new hub that will strengthen Europe's contribution to the global hunt for asteroids and other hazardous natural objects that may strike Earth.

Near-Earth Objects, or NEOs, are asteroids or comets with sizes ranging from metres to tens of kilometres that orbit the Sun and whose orbits come close to that of Earth. There are over 600.000 asteroids known in our Solar System, and almost 10.000 of them are NEOs.

Dramatic proof that some of these could strike Earth came on 15 February, when an unknown object thought to be 17–20 m in diameter exploded high above Chelyabinsk, Russia, with 20–30 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The resulting shock wave caused widespread damage and injuries, making it the largest known natural object to have entered the atmosphere since the 1908 Tunguska event.

The NEO Coordination Centre will serve as the central access point to a network of European NEO data sources and information providers being established under ESA's Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Programme.

This is the second centre to be opened under SSA leadership after the Space Weather Coordination Centre that opened in Brussels last month.

Located at ESRIN, ESA's centre for Earth observation, the centre was formally inaugurated today by Thomas Reiter, ESA Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations, together with Augusto Cramarossa, Italian Delegate to the ESA Council, and Claudio Portelli, Italian Delegate to the SSA Programme, both of ASI, the Italian space agency.

The event was hosted by Volker Liebig, ESA Director of Earth Observation Programmes and Head of the ESRIN Establishment.

The new centre will support experts in the field by federating new and existing European assets, systems and sensors into a future NEO system. It will support the integration and initial operation of ESA's NEO information distribution network (on the left - Asteroid 2012DA14).

The Centre is also the focus point for scientific studies needed to improve NEO warning services and provide near-realtime data to European and international customers, including scientific bodies, international organisations and decision-makers.