First private deep space mission will hunt killer asteroids

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A group of ex-NASA astronauts and scientists is aiming to keep the world safe by launching the first privately-funded deep space mission and scanning the solar system for dangerous asteroids.

The B612 Foundation - named for the asteroid in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince - is looking for funds to help place a space telescope in orbit around the sun. Dubbed Sentinel, it would range up to 170 million miles from Earth.

"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 percent of these asteroids to date, says ex-Shuttle and Soyuz astronaut Ed Lu, who is 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 is working with Ball Aerospace - the same team that developed the Spitzer and Kepler Space Telescopes. It expects to take around five years to complete development, with a launch in 2017 or 2018, using the SpaceX Falcon9.

"The Sentinel Space Telescope is a space-based Infrared (IR) telescope with a 20-inch diameter mirror that will depart Earth, headed inwards into the solar system 40 million miles," says Harold Reitsema, Sentinel mission director. 

"It will perform what is known as a gravitational slingshot maneuver off the planet Venus to enter its final orbit around the sun. This will provide the optimal vantage point to map the locations and trajectories of Earth-crossing asteroids."

Sentinel will scan the entire night half of the sky every 26 days to identify every moving object. Data will be sent back to the Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network, which also will be used for tracking and navigation.

"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,says Apollo 9 astronaut and chairman emeritus of the 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."