Planetary securityB612 Foundation unveils first privately funded deep space mission

Published 29 June 2012

A private group plans to launch its own space telescope and place it in orbit around the sun; the mission will collect information about Earth-threatening asteroids, but also look for asteroids that may contain valuable raw materials for mining

In a press conference at the California Academy of Sciences Thursday morning, the B612 Foundation unveiled its plans to build, launch, and operate the first privately funded deep space mission. The mission, dubbed SENTINEL, aims to place a space telescope in orbit around the Sun, ranging up to 170 million miles from Earth, for a mission of discovery and mapping.

The Boston Herald reports that NASA and a network of astronomers scan the skies for near-Earth objects. NASA says it has found 90 percent of the biggest threats — asteroids at least two-thirds of a mile across which are considered major threats to Earth. Scientists believe it was a 6-mile-wide asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-three million years ago.

The B612 Foundation says more attention should be paid to the estimated half a million smaller asteroids — similar in size to the one that exploded over Siberia in 1908 and leveled more than 800 square miles of forest.

“The orbits of the inner solar system where Earth lies are populated with a half million asteroids larger than the one that struck Tunguska (in Siberia, 30 June 1908), and yet we’ve identified and mapped only about one percent of these asteroids to date,” said Ed Lu, Space Shuttle, Soyuz, and Space Station astronaut, now chairman and CEO of the B612 Foundation. “During its 5.5-year mission survey time, Sentinel will discover and track half a million Near Earth Asteroids, creating a dynamic map that will provide the blueprint for future exploration of our Solar System, while protecting the future of humanity on Earth.”

The foundation notes that asteroids are a scientific and economic opportunity in that they contain the original building blocks of the Solar System. They are targets for future human exploration, and may contain valuable raw materials for mining. These asteroids are also a threat in that they can pose great risk to humanity here on Earth. Taking advantage of these opportunities and dealing with these threats require not only knowing where each of these individual asteroids is now, but also projecting where they will be in the future.

“For the first time in history, B612′s Sentinel Mission will create a comprehensive and dynamic map of the inner solar system in which we live – providing vital information about who we are, who are our neighbors, and where we are going,” said Rusty Schweickart, chairman emeritus of B612, and Apollo 9 astronaut. “We will know which asteroids will pass close to Earth and when, and which, if any of these asteroids actually threaten to collide with Earth. The nice thing about asteroids is that once you’ve found them and once you have a good solid orbit on them you can predict a hundred years ahead of time whether there is a likelihood of an impact with the Earth.”

The foundation says that advances in space technology, including advances in infrared sensing and on-board computing, as well as low-cost launch system, have opened up a new era in exploration where private organizations can now carry out grand and audacious space missions previously only possible by governments.

“The B612 Sentinel mission extends the emerging commercial spaceflight industry into deep space — a first that will pave the way for many other ventures,” said the former director of NASA Ames Research Center Dr. Scott Hubbard, B612 Foundation program architect, and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University. “Mapping the presence of thousands of near earth objects will create a new scientific database and greatly enhance our stewardship of the planet.”

The group’s plan calls for the Sentinel Space Telescope to operate for at least 5.5 years. Launch is targeted for 2017 or 2018. The telescope’s vantage point — between 30 million to 170 million miles away from Earth – will allow it to collect more information about asteroids, and collect it sooner, than NASA’s Earth-based observations.

We’re playing cosmic roulette. We’re flying around the solar system with these other objects. The laws of probability eventually catch up to you,” says Lu.