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Privately funded mission to track deadly asteroids

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jun 29, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—Veteran astronauts are leading a mission to save the world from the consequences of a deadly asteroid strike.

But Apollo 9's Rusty Schweickart and Shuttle astronaut Ed Lu will not be racing back into space themselves like Bruce Willis in the movie Armageddon.

Instead they are launching a campaign to build a space telescope called Sentinel that will orbit the Sun to seek out dangerous space rocks that threaten Earth.

The astronauts are key players in an organisation called the B612 Foundation that unveiled plans yesterday to launch the first privately funded mission to deep space.

Sentinel will be sent into an orbit around the Sun that will carry it as far as 274 million km (170 million miles) from Earth to discover and map the orbits of half a million Near Earth Objects (NEOs).

Its 50cm (20in) diameter mirror will scan half the sky every 26 days in infrared light to identify every moving object, then make follow-up observations. It aims to find 90 per cent of asteroids larger than 140 metres in size and a significant number down to a diameter of 30 metres.

Thankfully major asteroid impacts are not as common today as they were in the early days of the Solar System. Yesterday the discovery old the oldest impact scar on Earth was announced - a 100km (60 mile) wide crater in Greenland that is three billion years old.

But in 1908, the explosion of an asteroid or comet over a remote region of Siberia called Tunguska flattened 2,150 square km (830 square miles) of forest.

The B612 Foundation, which believes humanity can harness the power of science and technology to protect the future of civilization on this planet, says its aims will also help plan missions to explore and mine asteroids of valuable minerals.

Schweickart, Chairman Emeritus of B612, which gets its name from the name of the fictional asteroid on which the Little Prince lived in the French literary classic, said: "For the first time in history, B612’s Sentinel Mission will create a comprehensive and dynamic map of the inner solar system in which we live – providing vital information about who we are, who are our neighbors, and where we are going.

Sentinel's orbit

Sentinel's orbit around the Sun. Credit: B612 Foundation

"We will know which asteroids will pass close to Earth and when, and which, if any of these asteroids actually threaten to collide with Earth. The nice thing about asteroids is that once you’ve found them and once you have a good solid orbit on them you can predict a hundred years ahead of time whether there is a likelihood of an impact with the Earth."

Lu, who is Chairman and CEO of the B612 Foundation, said: "The orbits of the inner solar system where Earth lies are populated with a half million asteroids larger than the one that struck Tunguska, and yet we’ve identified and mapped only about one per cent of these asteroids to date.

"During its 5.5-year mission survey time, Sentinel will discover and track half a million near earth asteroids, creating a dynamic map that will provide the blueprint for future exploration of our Solar System, while protecting the future of humanity on Earth."

The foundation is working to build Sentinel with Ball Aerospace, of Boulder, Colorado, using the same expert team that developed the Spitzer and Kepler Space Telescopes. It is expected to take around five years to complete development and testing before the telescope is launched by a SpaceX Falcon9.

Dr Scott Hubbard, former Director of NASA's Ames Research Center, is B612 Foundation Program Architect. He said: "The Sentinel mission extends the emerging commercial spaceflight industry into deep space – a first that will pave the way for many other ventures. Mapping the presence of thousands of NEOs will create a new scientific database and greatly enhance our stewardship of the planet."

The foundation has not yet provided details of how it will find funding. But Lu said: "We believe our goal of opening up the solar system and protecting humanity is one that will resonate worldwide. We’ve garnered the support and advice of a number of individuals experienced with successful philanthropic capital campaigns of similar size or larger, and will continue to build our network."

He added: "We’ve been given a gift, and the gift is that we have the ability now to go out there and actually do something which positively affects the future of humanity on Earth."