Asteroid hunters announce private deep space mission

Asteroid 2005 YU55 A radar image shows the large asteroid 2005 YU55 that harmlessly passed Earth last year

Details have been released of an ambitious asteroid-hunting mission that a Californian non-profit organisation hopes to launch later this decade.

The Sentinel infrared telescope would be put in space to find and track potentially hazardous rocks near Earth.

The B612 Foundation project will cost several hundred million dollars, and big donations are being sought from around the world to fund the exercise.

Mission team members include former astronauts and senior Nasa officials.

Renowned manufacturer Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation has already sketched an early design for the telescope.

The foundation has been working for almost 10 years to try to raise awareness of the dangers that lurk in space, and has conducted technical studies on how one might deflect an asteroid on a collision path with Earth.

But it says there is an urgent need to identify where all the dangerous rocks are, and the time has now come for the private, philanthropic sector to take on the task.

"All of us have come to realise in the last several years that the human environment is not only land, water and air, but is also space," said Rusty Schweickart, the Apollo 9 astronaut and chairman emeritus at B612.

"All of us know today the value of communications satellites, weather satellites, resources satellites, etc. And among them, with our Sentinel mission, will be a satellite that provides public safety in the sense of enabling the prevention of asteroid impacts and devastation in the future."

Sentinel graphic

On average, an object about the size of car will enter Earth's atmosphere once a year, producing a spectacular fireball in the sky.

About every 2,000 years or so, an object the size of a football field will impact Earth, causing significant local damage.

And then, every few million years, a rock turns up that has a girth measured in kilometres. An impact from one of these will produce global effects.

Current surveys suggest we have probably found a little over 90% of the true monsters out there, and none look like they will hit us.

Sentinel mission overview

  • would track 90% of Earth-orbit-crossing asteroids larger than 100m; 50% of the 30m rocks
  • would give years/decades of notice before any potential impacts with Planet Earth
  • time could be used to plan and execute deflection missions; numerous ideas exist
  • Sentinel telescope aims to launch in 2017 or 2018 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket
  • observation orbit is close to that of Venus; it will lap Earth every 2.2 years
  • data and commands would go through Nasa'a Deep Space Network of antennas
  • Expected to be the first privately financed deep-space mission; it could carry a benefactor's name

It is the second category that the foundation's mission will seek to investigate. The vast majority of these rocks await discovery.

"We've found a bit less than 1% of the objects out that that can do harm," explained Schweickart.

Ed Lu, former shuttle astronaut and CEO of the foundation, added: "Eventually we will have to deflect an asteroid; we know that. Because essentially, we're playing cosmic roulette. We're flying around the Solar System with these other objects and the laws of probability eventually catch up with you."

The Sentinel telescope will lean heavily on hardware that has already been proven on previous Ball designs, such as Nasa's Kepler planet-hunter and its Spitzer infrared space observatory.

From its position close to Venus's orbit, it will be able to look out and build maps of the space environment in Earth's neighbourhood.

Its infrared detectors will be sensitive to wavelengths of light in the range from five to 10.4 microns. It is in this range that the asteroids will glow brightly.

During the 5.5-year mission, the telescope would expect to catalogue 500,000 new asteroids, including more than 90% of those large enough to cause a 100 megaton impact should they strike Earth (in other words, objects that are 140m wide or larger).

But the Sentinel would also expect to find about 50% of the rocks down to a diameter of 30m - the sort of object that in 1908 laid waste to a vast swathe of forest at Tunguska in Siberia.

The hope would be that the data returned by the telescope would allow the orbits of all these asteroids to be determined for about the next 100 years. We would then have sufficient time to develop a mitigation strategy if any of the objects are considered to have a high probability of hitting our planet.

Artist's impression of an asteroid approaching Earth The mission aims to find the rocks capable of causing damage should they hit the Earth

A launch for the Sentinel telescope is being targeted for 2017 or 2018. The group hopes to use the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which recently made history by sending the first privately developed cargo ship to the International Space Station.

Nasa has a direct involvement by allowing its antenna network to be used to receive all of the Sentinel's data, but the US space agency will not be funding any part of the venture. That will require donations.

The foundation says the project would cost no more than setting up a museum, an opera theatre, or academic building - all of which succeed in attracting the support of private benefactors.

"There's a long tradition of funding large telescopes philanthropically," Lu told BBC News.

"If you look at the major telescopes put up over the past 100 years, they are dominated by privately funded endeavours - the Keck telescope, the Lick Observatory, Mount Palomar.

"The difference is that our telescope is not going to be sitting on a mountaintop but will be orbiting the Sun."

B612 takes its name from the asteroid home of the Little Prince in the children's short novel Le Petit Prince written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

The foundation has no formal connection with Planetary Resources, the American company which in April announced its intention to spearhead a robotic asteroid mining industry.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Love the idea of doing this as a privately financed mission. We desperately need this kind of asteroid mapping capability. Of course it would be even better with 2 or 3 satellites rather than 1 but it is a crucial first step in asteroid defence.
    We apparently get hit by a Tunguska type object on average every 50 years and we definitely could stop one of those. -It could save millions of lives..

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Maybe we'll get lucky and one will land on Theresa May

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.


    the Tunguska event was a mear 30m asteroid, yet was 1,000 times the power of the Hiroshima nuclear weapon.

    a 100m asteroid is serious business, it has a volume of 37 Tungusta events (assuming both spheres).

    I for one am glad someone is looking for these things!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    You are engaged in a logical fallacy. The fallacy is that spending a few hundred million on this project means humans cannot engage in other projects. The reality of the matter is we can do many, many things all at the same time.

    Choosing to do this mission is not at the expense of sanitation ( sanitation implies clean water, so I don't get your argument I ignored water either )

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Who knows what else they might find?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    "Shouldn't we, as 'intelligent' human beings" intelligent??????? HAH seen more inteligent life forms wriggle about on their backs at the bottom of ponds.Look at the mess the world is in,the state of economys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    14.oldpip - ".....I notice you focussed on the provision of sanitation and not the water!"

    Surely inhernant in having sanitation is having a clean water supply...???

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    What we really need is a mission to find the light at the end of the tunnel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Considering we can't even tell what impact orbital resonance is going to have on the Asteroid Apophis when it does a close pass in 2029, and there is a (albeit slim) possibility of an Impact on the pass afterwards, I think the more attention we pay to potential hazards the better.

    With Ion technology etc, we ARE in a position now to at least try to take action if we spot it early enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The article/comments indicate that once found we 'may' and 'hopefully' be able to do' something' about an impact!

    If 'private' money is 'availale' for such a project why not spend it more philanthropically.

    Shouldn't we, as 'intelligent' human beings be considarate to those who ARE suffering NOW, not maybe or perhaps.

    I notice you focussed on the provision of sanitation and not the water!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    umm, the elite , truly international team is what the article is about, the first thing any team will need is data, and this mission will provide it.

    Seeing as it's private money, I don't see what concern it is of anyone else's or why they should be spending it on your sanitation.

    Good for them I say. Nice to see someone is taking care of this problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    If there is a possibility of an event that will destroy us then the money should be spent on making the lives of ALL the earth's inhabitants, at least, bearable. Make sure they all have water, sanitation, education and access to birth control etc.until the end.

    If the event will be catastrophic but survivable, then create an elite, truly international rescue team that can be deployed when needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Asteroids are the least of our problems. There are far more destructive forces wandering around our planet, trashing it even as we speak. Perhaps we could take all the developers and fire them at the asteroid? Kill two birds with one stone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Judging by the behaviour of many humans of late as a species I think we are doomed anyway so why not go out with a bang and save money by doing so

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.


    Can't we simply mould all the worlds garbage into a ball and fire that at any incoming asteroid, kill two birds with one stone so to speak, we get rid of the garbage and stop the asteroid.
    Sounds a nice idea at first, but if it goes wrong it may turn out like p**sing into the wind. Even worse if the asteroid is the garbage ball of some other inconsiderate beings on a far away planet!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Can't we simply mould all the worlds garbage into a ball and fire that at any incoming asteroid, kill two birds with one stone so to speak, we get rid of the garbage and stop the asteroid.
    Bite my shiny........

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    @ schoolies:
    Findings indicate there are roughly 4,700 PHAs, plus or minus 1,500, with diameters larger than 330 feet (about 100 meters). So far, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of these objects have been found..
    Also, Asteroids with a 1 km (0.62 mi) diameter strike the Earth every 500,000 years on average. 70yrs / 500,000 = 0.014%

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I think before making comments in HYS read the article first.

    Presently we scan about 1% of the sky. The new satellite in a 5.5-year mission would catalogue 500,000 new asteroids, including more than 90% of those large enough to cause a 100 megaton impact (ELE).

    Giving a 100 year plot of their movements and hopefully enough time to think of a solution. Must be a good thing, no?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Goodness me that Chixalub meteorite was a large bang !

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Every 2000 years a football pitch sized asteroid gets hit by a planet. Nobody cares about the asteroid.

    What about asteroid rights ?


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