Monday December 3, 2012 0 commentsLaunch of Sentinel space telescope set for 2017-2018
By Steve Porter
BOULDER/MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - A group of scientists and space explorers called the B612 Foundation is teaming up with Ball Aerospace to develop a space telescope with the mission of mapping the asteroids zooming through the inner Solar System.
It's hoped the map will provide information about asteroid orbits so any future collisions with Earth might be headed off and the planet protected.
In late October, Ball and the non-profit, California-based B612 Foundation signed a contract for Ball to create prototype infrared imaging sensors - the first phase of a 20-inch-diameter, space-based infrared telescope called Sentinel.
The B612 Foundation's founders include two former U.S. astronauts - Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart - and former high-level officials with NASA Ames Research Center and Ball Aerospace.
The privately funded organization is concerned that the Earth is on an inevitable asteroid collision course unless data can be accumulated to project their future paths.
The Earth has been struck countless times by small asteroids called meteorites as they break up in the planet's atmosphere. But some of the big ones strike Earth and cause significant -even cataclysmic - damage, such as the Tunguska strike in Siberia in 1908 that flattened 770 square miles of forest and an even bigger one believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago.
B612 estimates only one percent of the nearly one million asteroids in the inner Solar System that could potentially hit the Earth with devastating consequences have been observed and tracked so far.
Sentinel aims to be the Earth's eyes in space, cataloging asteroid movements and giving the planet's inhabitants a better chance to head off a disaster by launching a rocket or through some other technologically-feasible method to deflect the asteroid's course by enough to cause it to miss.
"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," said Schweickart, an Apollo 9 astronaut and Chairman Emeritus of B612, during a June press conference unveiling the Sentinel Mission.
"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."
"Mapping the presence of thousands of near-Earth objects (NEOs) will create a new scientific database and greatly enhance our stewardship of the planet," said Dr. Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA Ames Research Center, serving as program architect.
Harold Reitsema, former Ball Aerospace director of science mission development and Sentinel's mission director, said the telescope will map about 200,000 asteroids in its first year with the survey completed in 5.5 years.
"This is a very exciting mission," he said. "We know a lot about what we're doing, but there are plenty of challenges left. We're excited and ready to move forward."
First and only choice
Lu, a former Space Shuttle, Soyuz and Space Station astronaut who serves as B612's chair and CEO, said the organization will work closely with Boulder-based Ball Aerospace.
"Ball was our first and only choice as the major contractor for Sentinel," he said. "The company is a pioneer in space observations with a track record of excellence spanning more than 55 years.
"We are thrilled to have them as our partner."
Ball will build on early telescope technology it pioneered with such projects as the Kepler Telescope, which has identified the presence of hundreds of previously-unknown Earth-sized planets since its 2009 launch.
Lu said an exact cost for the Sentinel Mission has not yet been finalized but will be "several hundred million dollars over 11 years." Negotiations with Ball are still ongoing on the mission's cost, he said.
The project will be entirely funded by private donations from people around the world, Lu said, acknowledging that fundraising is "going quite well" but adding he could not reveal how much has so far been collected since the project was formally announced about five months ago.
Lu, who has spent more time than almost any other human looking down from space at the Earth, said it's a project he hopes many will get behind.
"Can you think of anything more important than protecting the future of humanity on this planet," he said. "We have the capability to do that, and that's something we can't turn down."
The Sentinel telescope is currently set to launch in the 2017-2018 time frame. "B612" is the name of the home asteroid of the Little Prince, the main character in the book of the same name by Antoine de Saint-Exupery published in 1943.
To donate or find out more, visit www.b612foundation.org.