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 143.

    We may well have brought about our own demise (overpopulation) long before an asteroid does .....!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    @141 It's not beside the point I was trying to make re post 137 i.e. 100% of the dinosaur population wasn't wiped out by an asteroid. Forgive me, I was just being pernickety.
    I agree that asteroids are a contender for most ELE, flood volcanism and impact triggered volcanism are also worth a shout. To date no crater has been found that correlates to the Permian-Triassic ELE.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Most Great Dyings in geological history were caused by asteroids, including the dinosaur extinction of 65 Mya and the worst of all, the Permian-Triassic 245 Mya,And of course Schumacher-Levy 9 hit Jupiter in 1994. As Carl Schumacher said, it proved "comets really do hit planets."

    @ 138 whether some dinosaurs survived, is therefore really beside the point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Yes Billiard balls.
    Already have the tech to reach small asteriods, strap a couple of outboard motors to it for propulsion and steering, then send it of on collision course with problem NEO.
    Will have years to build up its momentum and refuel until ping ..... coalescence and deflection.

    Next problem please!

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    With the greatest of respects the dinosaurs are just one of many dominant species that have been wiped out over the 2 billion years or so that the earth has been capable of supporting complex life, there has been at least a dozen or so extinction level event throughout that period that we have identified, now weather or not all were cause by an asteroid or not is up for debate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.


    The entire dinosaur population wasn't wiped out by an asteroid. Some species are present in geolgical time scales after the K/T boundary (boundary thought to be due to asteroid that caused crater at Chixelub). Also remember that birds evolved from dinosaurs, non-avian dinosaur fossils are only found below the boundary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    #136 HT168
    Are you sure about that? The cold wars worst case scenario 'total global nuclear war' could have wiped out 40 - 60% of the population of the west & 10 - 30% of the world population. If it was bad enough a nuclear winter could take that to 50% of th world population.
    Now if you'll care to look at the dinosaurs - extrapolate that to us and an asteroid could kill 100% of the population. :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    The risk of human wiped out by asteroids would be far less than destruction caused by wars amongst ourselves!

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Time to call Bruce Willis

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    The earth it’s self is nothing but a collection of large and small asteroids, it’s called planetary formation, the fact that such formation sucks up so many in a given orbital zone does not mean that we are not threatened, in fact we are under a constant threat, so this is great news, at least someone’s doing something and trying to protect us, unlike many of the world’s Gov.’s

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    I think once we master reliable fusion power, we’ll make a significant step towards making these ideas a reality. More over, our greater need for He-3 will make it more desirable to explore and exploit the Solar System.

    That’s why we need to keep expanding our knowledge in all directions; it all ties together.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    #131 bengate

    Hopes for the future!
    Of course, before we can coast downhill into the universe, we have to get over the hump of establishing ourselves in the solar system. With the triple whammy due to hit us in the 2050s, I hope we can do it in time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    @130 Entropic Man

    Yes, I read Orphans of the Sky, I know about the Universe ship and its design. That's why I said what I did. I think it's probably the most likely way for us to colonise the solar system. It might work for interstellar voyages too, though there are risks in a generational starship, as Heinlein illustrated in the story.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    #129 Bengate

    You're getting close to a Heinlein generation ship.
    Take a 2km asteroid. At one end mount nuclear reactors and rocket nozzles firing vapourised rock. The crew mine a space in the centre and use the excavated rock as reaction mass.
    The 1km between crew and reactors acts as radiation shielding, the 1km to the bow as cosmic ray shielding.
    Go to the stars, breeding and mining.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Using a hollow asteroid makes sense. Also, once one was completed, why land on Mars (or wherever) at all? Might as well stay in the habitat rather than build a new one on the planet, and spin it so coriolis creates gravity on the inward surfaces. You'd have a colony and spaceship both in one.

    @120, I doubt the universe has a point of view, and I certainly don't know what it is, so I won't worry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    #127 Drunken Hobo

    It would solve the radiation problem. Excavating habitat below the surface would keep exposure down during the trip.
    You would probably experience something of the atmosphere of 19th century travel by steamship to the Far East. A year in transit in close, but comfortable surroundings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    I wonder if it'd be possible to use an asteroid as a means of transport. We already know of many asteroids that cross the orbits of both Mars & Earth; you could land on it when it's closest to Earth, hitch a ride and take off again when approaching Mars. We could even use a number of them and engineer their orbits to provide a "regular" shuttle service between the planets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    #117.Robert Lucien
    "Its very hard to know where any of the different propulsion techniques will leave us, how efficient they are or if they will even work. .."

    We need to do some serious testing in the near future, while the pressure's off.
    Leaving us to attempt deflection of an ELE asteroid under time pressure with untried technology would be foolhardy and irresponsible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.


    To be honest, the language is pretty flexible, an asteroid the size of the Rock of Gibraltar, or Ayers Rock, for example, would make one heck of a mess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Asteroids are not rocks. Rocks are objects the size of loaves of bread or dustbins, after that they become boulders and after that (asteroids) they can be the size of a city. We all use colloquial language but please get this kind of thing into perspective! If an asteroid hits us most of us are in deep doo-doo.


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