Saturday, June 30, 2012

The B612 Foundation

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Little prince on the original B612 asteroid.
On June 28th, the B612 foundation announced its plans to build, launch, and operate a deep-space telescope, Sentinel, which will find and map asteroids that could pose a danger to planet Earth. The official press release summarizes the mission:
“The orbits of the inner solar system where Earth lies are populated with a half million asteroids larger than the one that struck Tunguska (June 30, 1908), and yet we’ve identified and mapped only about one percent of these asteroids to date, said Ed Lu, Space Shuttle, Soyuz, and Space Station Astronaut, now Chairman and CEO of the B612 Foundation. “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 B612 foundation has actually been around since 2001, working towards its mission of protecting Earth from a potentially disastrous asteroid impact. Prior to yesterday's announcement they had been focusing on technologies that could deflect threatening asteroids away from Earth's orbit, such as gravity tractors, kinetic impactors, and nuclear vaporization. However, they eventually realized that these technologies would be useless if no one knows the asteroid is coming, and that nobody was doing anything to find and track the most threatening asteroids. the organization's website explains: 
"NASA’s Spaceguard survey has succeeded in mapping 90 percent of the largest NEAs (larger than 1 km), yet due to the limitations of searching for asteroids using mostly ground based optical telescopes, only about one percent of these asteroids larger than Tunguska have been discovered and tracked to date. We are essentially flying around the Solar System with our eyes closed." 
The foundation estimates that in 5.5 years, Sentinel will have identified around half a million Near Earth Asteroids, with enough temporal information to project their orbits 100 years into the future. They think there is a 50% chance that the mission will identify at least one asteroid on a collision course with Earth that will need to be deflected in order to prevent a potentially catastrophic Earth impact.
The Sentinel Telescope (preliminary design by Ball Aerospace).
Source: B612

The Sentinel telescope will operate in the infrared, where asteroids stand out against the cold blackness of space, and be built by Ball Aerospace, the same folks that built the Kepler, Spitzer, and Hubble telescopes. It will be placed into an orbit similar to Venus's. This orbit will allow it to scan the side of the Sun opposite from Earth, which it would not be able to do if it were in orbit around Earth. However, it will also make operations and communications tricky because its distance from Earth will vary between 30 - 170 million miles, as opposed to the much more cozy 350 milles between Earth and Hubble. This is difficult but by no means unheard of - we have been operating spacecraft on Mars and beyond for tens of years. Current estimates put launch in 2017-2018, aboard one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets.

Sentinel's orbit, which will allow it to map the side of the Sun opposite from Earth.
Source: B612 foundation. 
The B612 Foundation has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA in June 2012, under which NASA will provide communications, tracking, and technical support for the Sentinel Mission. However, B612 is a nonprofit 501(c) 3 organization that "intends to raise the money for the Sentinel Mission in a manner similar to philanthropic capital campaigns for civic projects." If they do it right, and take advantage of flashy publicity videos and social media, I bet they could raise the necessary money very quickly - this is a subject that people can easily get excited about. 

Kudos to the B612 foundation for taking on a huge but necessary project. As John Stuart recently put it, "Do you know how rarely the news in 2012 looks and sounds how you thought news would look and sound in 2012?"

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