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 43.


    Actually, an ocean impact would be much worse than if it hit a large landmass. If an asteroid hit the ocean then the vast amounts of water sent into the atmosphere would be disasterous, and the tsunami would kill hundreds of millions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Wasting money looking for "once in 2000 years" objects.
    By the time one comes it's going to cause a add a tiny fraction to the damage man will have inflicted upon this planet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    The value of research like this is not just to protect our planet from asteroid impacts but to also conduct a survey of available resources.

    With many thousands of asteroids available we could obtain all our need resources for thousands of years.

    Certainly money well spent.
    To make us all rich al we need is energy and resources, and a little bit of imagination.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.


    If we catch it early enough and attach some Ion jets, it can actually be coaxed into missing the Earth. If not, then we could try to divert it into a large body of water, and try to alter the impact angle to as shallow as possible to reduce tectonic shock. The second situation would still mean decades of hardship, but would probably be survivable by much of humanity with some planning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    #38 oldpip

    No, no, no!
    We are men, ask any woman, she will tell you we cannot multitask!"

    Maybe one man alone maybe cant multi-task but put 100 capable men (or women) in a room together and you can theoretically do 100 projects at once. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    No, no, no!
    We are men, ask any woman, she will tell you we cannot multitask!

    Oh, just one thought. If we can't divert it, who gets to be 'saved' and who decides?

    We do not have room on the space station for 7 billion!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Just want to mention that The Little Prince is not just a Children story but a very philosophical book about the condition of mankind. Thank you

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    gillian69, Futurama fan? :-)

    Rather than a garbage ball how about a ball of bankers ? Actually, there's not a lot of difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Once this technology is perfected it could be used to calculate orbits for the deliberate moving of asteroids closer to earth for mining of resources.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    We're only a bunch of highly-evolved monkeys clinging onto a rock, spinning through a vastness beyond our comprehension and while I welcome any fantastic project such as this, I would say we'll manage to kill off the Planet long before any chance collision with a ball of fire from the void.

    Doesn't make a very good Hollywood blockbuster does it........very long and very dull.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    The risk of being hit by an asteroid is so low enough that it's not something anyone should worry about at all. If it concerns you then you're seriously paranoid. It makes far more sense to simply check anything found during normal astronomical observations rather than building a mission to search for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    'Clean' water is only part of 'good' sanitation i.e. drinking and washing. For disposal of human waste any waste water would do or composting toilets even methane production.

    The point is there is a lot of 'private' money that philanthropically could be better employed right now, not perhaps or maybe.

    I notice NASA will 'receive' the data (without peeking first?) but won't pay towards it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    its all about time.

    If we have years to plan its not a insurmountable issue, change its course a fraction or a degree and over 2-3-4-5 years that becomes hundreds of thousands of miles.

    If we only have months, the required deviation is much larger, and harder, and needs to be done faster.

    Thats why this is a great mission, it gives us the time we'll need.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    26 and 27, wrong and wrong. Early detection is the key. If you detect the object and it is far enough away then it will only take a small course adjustment for it to miss the Earth. Bruce Willis would not be required.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I wonder, with all the asteriods in the 'belt' sooner or later the slight gravitational pulls will cause some of them to collide knocking 1 or more out of their orbit and send 1 this way. Some kind of celestial billards shot. How long is it likely to take such an object to reach us? An what could we do about it?

  • Comment number 28.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Since there is very little we could do to stop an asteroid strike wouldn't we be better off if one came as a complete surprise rather than a warning allowing the wealthy to flee whilst the poor fornicate and drink away their remaining time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Of course the big problem with asteroid defence is that the only sane option that is tenable with todays tech is to push them with nuclear weapons. What the world needs is a new civilian bomb program for pushing asteroids & we need to develop a new class of warheads and delivery systems specifically for doing so. Of course that is a much more difficult & expensive tech than building a satellite..

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Maybe we will be lucky and one will land on Ed Milliband and the labour party can be taken seriously again

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    18. marty
    "Look at the mess the world is in,the state of economies."

    Mot to mention the state of your spelling and grammar!


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