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 63.

    To all the people complaining about spending Millions on a project to save the lives of future generations:
    How do you square that with spending Billions so that we get a better pension and a nice job today?

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    we could try to divert it into a large body of water,

    That would actually be more dangerous. A sizable asteroid landing in the ocean could cause a tsunami 1 kilometer high. A wave of that size and mass would flatten everything on the coastlines of all the countries surrounding the ocean as well as travelling 10's of kilometers inland and wiping out everything there too !

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Kind of amazed by some of the comments to the effect that maybe getting hit by an asteroid might just be what humanity has coming and that we shouldn't try and do anything about it. Why can't these laidback voices make themselves heard on, like, every other subject?

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.


    It's humbling when you consider that if you were born on the day the Wright brothers first flew their powered glider, then you wouldn't even have reached retirement age by the time Yuri Gagarin become the first man in space...

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Whatever it's value - it's marvellous that we're able to even contemplate such a mission. A mere 100 years ago, most Air Forces were in their infancy, the beautiful but ultimately pointless Zeppelin's were delivering mail, much stick and string was being used for planes. The first woman pilot to cross the Channel did so in 1912. Mankind, eh? 99% chimp? Mmm, nah.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    The risk of being hit by an asteroid is so low enough that it's not something anyone should worry about at all

    The probability of winning the lottery is also very low so by your logic, people shouldn't worry about playing and winning the lottery - yet they do so in their thousands...
    In both cases - probability is low but effects are huge if it does happen...

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Its nothing like heath and safety, I know falling off a ladder might kill me, I can manage that risk myself, I dont need a 'scientist' to tell me.

    I can, however, do nothing about 4,000,000 tonnes of rock landing on my house, I need projects like this to do that for me.

    I bet the dinosaurs thought they didnt need to worry about asteroids, until it was too late.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.


    To be honest, humanity is still young, and every species has the right to try to survive, yes, we aren't perfect, but we're never going to even get the chance to improve if we are dead.

    The sad truth of the universe is that survival isn't something you deserve, it's something you earn, or you die. We are starting to understand our own vulnerability, and that, at least, is a start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    It's rather depressing to see comments that question worrying about something with such a very small risk of killing you being marked down, yet when there's a story about too much health and safety worrying the majority of comments condemning the H&S overkill get marked up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    52.Miss Fix - ".....Why oh why does the human race insist on wanting to conquor everything, at the cost of everything !...."

    An awful lot of the conquoring we've done has been at low cost to the benefits - take moving from Africa to Euope/Asia, that went very well for thousands of years until capitalist greed got in on the act.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    It might sound pessimistic, but I say let it happen... I'm quite happy with it.

    Speak for yourself - you'll be up for a "Darwin Award" with that kind of thinking.
    The human race is so successful because most of us have the ability to adapt and plan for the future.
    Let's all hope people with your outlook never get left in a position of responsibility...

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Agree with #3

    Why oh why does the human race insist on wanting to conquor everything, at the cost of everything !

    Think about it for a few minutes before you disagree :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    What we need to do is capture a NEO, juggle it into Geostationary orbit at the Equator, and, hey presto, a connection point for a future space elevator, much easier than building a station ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Spending that money on a Clangers Movie in 3D would be my choice

    This would serve both the asteroid community and the general community at large

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    The bbc not a fan of a freedom of speech by the looks of it.
    What did we do last time? Spent Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck up there didn't we?

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Other than protecting the planet capturing asteroids would provide huge amounts of resources.

    Obtaining resources from asteroids would clean up the planet by removing mining and metal production from our fragile ecosystem.

    Strangely many environmentalist groups are very opposed to space research in this field. Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    The Tunguska event was in 1908, so according to these stats we need not worry for about 1900 years!

    Pay attention at the back of the class ! This does NOT mean that we're safe for another 1,900 years. We could have 3 asteroid strikes in the next year, then nothing for 100,000 years - statistics are only a guideline for what might happen, not a prediction of what will happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.


    It's a bit of a trade off to be honest, more of the impact debris would be steam if it hit an Ocean, which is slightly better than the all-dust cloud thrown up by a land impact. The Tsunami is a problem, but since we are land-dwellers, evacuation is probably easier than finding a land-based impact area. Tectonic effects would also be different. Depends on size of the object really.

  • Comment number 45.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Sorry about my spelling!!

    The cost of even a small asteroid hitting earth would be £trillions and millions of lives lost, so reasonable levels of research into it is money well spent, surely?

    More importantly if we want a better planet, cleaner, richer, healthier and to eradicate poverty then we need resources. A good way to obtain these resources is from asteroids


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