This morning at the California Academy of Sciences, a team of former astronauts, space scientists, NASA alums, and other concerned citizens of the solar system announced an unprecedented initiative to location a solar-orbiting telescope in deep space. The B612 Foundation desires to map the inner solar system’s asteroid inhabitants and chart their orbits over the next hundred years. And to do so, it will build, launch, and operate the first privately funded deep space mission in the history of human spaceflight.
As a privately undertaken spaceflight enterprise, the Sentinel Mission is an ambitious undertaking. But B612 (the name of the foundation comes from the fictional asteroid that is property to the title character in the French literary classic The Little Prince) CEO Ed Lu is surprised that it has taken this extended for someone to do this. Entities watching the sky, like NASA’s Close to-EarthObject program, have estimated 90 per cent of objects to be larger than 800 metres across. But according to B612, there are a half million far more asteroids bigger than the one that devastated the Tunguska region in northern Russia in 1908. Of those, we’ve mapped only one per cent.
Sentinel aims to map the rest. The infrared telescope will be launched into a heliocentric orbit sometime later this decade that will at times spot it 273 million kilometres from Earth. It will scan the entire night half of the sky every 26 days, identifying each and every moving object. In just 5.5 years, B612 plans to have mapped the orbit of 98 per cent of all near earth asteroids – much more than half a million objects total.
The B612 Foundation did not originally set out to map asteroids. The group formed out of a one-day meeting in 2001 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center addressing possible asteroid threats. It set about bringing awareness to the potential asteroid threat and looking for means of deflecting a killer asteroid should one ever be detected. But inside a few years, it became apparent that humans cannot deflect what they can not see.
“All along we had assumed that a person somewhere was going to undertake the first step of really mapping and locating all of the objects crossing Earth orbit,” Lu told Popular Science. “So we had been pushing for step 2: deflection. But it soon became clear that no one was going to do step one. The spending budget situation in Washington didn’t bode well, and in Europe it was even worse. We realised that if anyone was going to do it, it would have to be us.”
B612 marks something entirely novel for the private space market, in that it is not a commercial venture. It really is something a lot more like space philanthropy. In 2001, a privately-funded deep space mission was unthinkable.
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Sentinel will try to track hundreds of thousands of asteroids in a bid to protect Earth. (Credit: B612 Foundation) Of all the cataclysmic threats facing humanity, the one that could really wipe us off the map — a hit by a truly massive asteroid — gets relatively little in terms of resources. The B612 Foundation aims to change that with the…
“Speculating that it will be in the region of “a few hundred million dollars.” California-based non-profit B612 Foundation has announced its intention to place an asteroid-hunting infrared telescope into orbit around the Sun. Named Sentinel, the ambitious endeavor is to be the world’s first privately funded deep space mission and will aim to map…