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 83.

    @3 KitchenKnives
    "Let nature take its course and when our time is up, it's up."

    All species evolve and do what they need to do to ensure their continued survival, including Homo Sapiens.
    How is this project anything but nature taking it's course?

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    @ 57 Martin Richardson
    "I bet the dinosaurs thought they didnt need to worry about asteroids"

    I bet they didn't!

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    69 Entropic man - I've been wondering - how would a nuclear bomb even work in outer space? Most of the destructive power comes from the shockwave, but in a vacuum, there is no medium to transmit that shockwave. You'd probably have to land the bomb on the surface.

    Anyway, how's this for an idea:
    Nuke the Moon? Cold War America sounds like such fun!

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Country X has weapons of mass destruction? Country Y's economy becoming too powerful? Country Z not democratic enough? Divert this rock to obliterate that country. Looks like a natural disaster, no one gets blamed. Problem solved.

    A project with good intentions, but would need regulating by a UN-type organisation to prevent political abuse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    It's a sad indictment of our society that some of us think public money would be better spent on things such as interpretive dance or buying art work that looks like a 3 year old Stevie Wonder has painted it, rather that such a bold and important project. I think those that consider us the infidel have at least got a point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    ConnorMacLeod (53)

    "The human race is so successful because most of us have the ability to adapt and plan for the future."

    Mmm :) Many members of the human race I know are remarkably bad at seeing beyond their own nose, let alone planning for the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    59 monkhousebyproxy
    "Mankind, eh? 99% chimp? Mmm, nah."

    To be fair, we may have flown the first aircraft, but the chimps beat us into space!

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    We're lucky that Jupiter, the great cosmic vacuum cleaner, sucks wayward asteroids and comets into its gravitational field so they smack into its atmosphere. We'd have a much greater chance of being hit if Jupiter didn't exist.

    Above article shows massive fireballs from these impacts, visible from Earth, so imagine if one hit us!

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    State funding is essential to space exploration, business simple will not fund the infrastructure, but they will fund the profit making side such as telecoms.

    But democratic elected politicians only really care about getting elected and thus only want to fund vote winners.

    So we spend billions on an Olympics and nothing on space exploration.

    Decadent society taken to extremes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    I'd prefer it if this sort of money was spent on earthquake research & other more frequent terrestrial disasters & their mitigation. Perhaps some research could be done into the psychology behind the behaviour of people wanting to live in close proximity to disaster-liable zones like the San Andreas fault, et c., et c. Not as sexy though, is it...?

    Sort out the banks & we can have it all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    8. gillan69
    'Can't we simply mould all the worlds garbage into a ball and fire that at any incoming asteroid,'
    There's already so much space junk out there I'd be astonished if an asteriod managed to miss enough of it to reach us!

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Can we save the fervent discussion over whether this is worth the expense or not until after everybody's dead?

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    I say we send the guy from the Go Compare advert to said asteroid and get him to sing.

    Not only will the horrible sound destroy the asteroid, we get rid of the portly gentleman as well!

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    This is vital basic data gathering that is really like insurance, it deserves to be funded by states on an international basis at least in part. Have a look at the blog Beyond Apollo for how the 60s might have been had Project Icarus been neded!

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    #26 Robert Lucien
    "the only sane option that is tenable with todays tech is to push them with nuclear weapons"

    Depends on what you're pushing.
    A solid nickel-iron asteroid would respond to a bomb by forming a crater, the ejecta giving a useful push.
    A chondritic rubble pile would just break apart, turning a bullet into a shotgun blast.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    A mile of new motorway costs about £30m - so in terms of £ per mile - this sounds cheap. Mankind wasting super-billions on new fangled ways to blow each other to pieces - instead of healthcare, food distribution &c. - so how can this peaceful, fascinating science be a waste of money in comparison? One wonders about the soul - or lack of - some posters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Dear God,

    Can an asteroid please land on the square mile of theft in the city of London and rid us of our parasitical bankers.

    Many thanks


  • rate this

    Comment number 66.


    As I responded to Frank in comment 46, there are pros and cons to both methods, and it really depends on a whole host of variables. 400 Letters isn't really enough. Yes, land impacts may be better in some cases, depends on size, speed, angle of incidence, composition of the object and, of course, time. An icy comet core, like Tunguska, for example, would have had more impact had it hit water.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    The more information we have, the better we will be able to deal with a situation whereupon we are threatened with extinction. Think of it as insurance, we all buy insurance for things, "just in case". This is no different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    the things which are going to kill Mankind are Ignorance, Cynicism and Intransigence. If you are happy to let an asteroid fall on your head, good for you, but let those of us who wish to have some control over our destiny, and probably save some of you Luddites into the bargain, have our fun and see what we can achieve. This is a project with global ramifications, so get the globe involved.


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