Asteroids of various sizes whiz past our planet all the time. Some we know about, but many we don’t, and new ones are identified on an almost weekly basis. (In fact one such recently-discovered asteroid named 2014 HQ214, an object the length of an aircraft carrier, will pass us at a mere 3 lunar distances today June 8… watch live coverage here.) And, of course, some actually do impact Earth, and if they are large enough the results can be quite… energetic, to put it lightly.
While there aren’t yet any programs in place that can prevent a large asteroid impact from happening, there are some that are at least on the lookout for potential impactors. The B612 Foundation’s privately-funded Sentinel mission is one of them and, once launched and placed in orbit around the Sun in 2018, will hunt for near-Earth asteroids down to about 140 meters in size using the most advanced infrared imaging technology… and no federal budget cuts or red tape to worry about.
The video above, produced by B612 Foundation’s primary contractor Ball Aerospace, shows how Sentinel will work, and why development has been going so well.
“I see this as the wave of the future — the ability for non-governmental organizations to put together the funding, working with outstanding technical organizations like Ball Aerospace, and produce space missions where the government isn’t involved and where the price is much, much less, and we still get the same kind of great information.”
– Dr. Scott Hubbard, B612 Program Architect and former director of the NASA Ames Research Center
This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… three to ten times more, in fact. A new visualization of data from a nuclear weapons warning network, to be unveiled by B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu during the evening event at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, shows that “the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck.”
Since 2001, 26 atomic-bomb-scale explosions have occurred in remote locations around the world, far from populated areas, made evident by a nuclear weapons test warning network. In a recent press release B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu states:
“This network has detected 26 multi-kiloton explosions since 2001, all of which are due to asteroid impacts. It shows that asteroid impacts are NOT rare — but actually 3-10 times more common than we previously thought. The fact that none of these asteroid impacts shown in the video was detected in advance is proof that the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck. The goal of the B612 Sentinel mission is to find and track asteroids decades before they hit Earth, allowing us to easily deflect them.”
The B612 Foundation is partnered with Ball Aerospace to build the Sentinel Infrared Space Telescope Mission. Once positioned in solar orbit closer to the Sun from Earth, Sentinel will look outwards in infrared to detect hundreds of thousands of as-yet unknown near-Earth objects over 140 meters in size. The privately-funded spacecraft is slated to launch in 2017-18 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
In addition to Lu, Space Shuttle astronaut Tom Jones and Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders will be speaking at the event, titled “Saving the Earth by Keeping Big Asteroids Away.”
“If we get hit 20 years from now, that’s not bad luck. That’s stupidity.”
That’s what former NASA astronaut Ed Lu has to say about asteroids and our efforts to search for them. He delivered those comments at a panel discussion today at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. He and several other astronauts spoke on behalf of the Association of Space Explorers (which, as the name implies, consists of astronauts, cosmonauts and the like.)
We guess that as astute readers of our publication, you know that a planetary threat from asteroids (and comets) exists. And there’s certainly more we can do; when that 17-meter asteroid blasted Russia earlier this year, Lu said most space agencies learned about it from social media!
So what’s being done about these threats? Here’s a roundup of the panel discussion’s information and some related information.
Asteroid searching and deflection:
Since Lu is the CEO of the B612 Foundation, there was a heavy emphasis on the agency’s proposed Sentinel telescope. Intended to launch in 2018, it would survey the solar system in infrared and seek out potential hazards.
To date, NASA’s NEO Observations Program has found 95 per cent of near-Earth objects larger than one kilometer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Amy Mainzer told Universe Today in a separate conversation today.
TheWISE spacecraft’s NEOWISE mission, meanwhile, is going to restart early next year, Mainzer added. “While NEOWISE is not nearly as capable as NEOCam will be, it will improve our knowledge of the diameters and albedos of about 2,000 NEOs and tens of thousands of main belt asteroids,” Mainzer wrote. “With the NEOWISE prime mission, we discovered more than 34,000 new asteroids and observed >158,000 in total. We have used our data from NEOWISE to set constraints on the number of NEOs and potentially hazardous asteroids.”
Former NASA astronaut Tom Jones shared this slide concerning ideas for asteroid defense. Credit: Tom Jones/Association for Space Explorers/AMNH/Ustream (screenshot)
Getting the United Nations involved:
This week, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space adopted several steps related to asteroids. It’s planning an International Asteroid Warning Group (to share detections and warn of potential impacts), an Impact Disaster Planning Advisory Group, and a Space Missions Planning and Advisory Group (which would look at deflection missions, options, costs, etc.)
Why go with the United Nations? In the panel, NASA Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart explained it this way: deciding how to deflect an asteroid posts risks. You might be moving the impact path past a country that would not have been at risk before the deflection. It’s best to make such moves internationally, rather than having (say) the United States make a decision that could increase Russia’s risk to an asteroid.
The problem? Working by committee is slow, says former Romanian astronaut Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu: “You would think with the United Nations that we started to think about asteroids only in 2007, 8 or 9, but the first input was done by 1999 at the Unispace conference, the United Nations International Conference in Space.” People have been working hard, to be sure, but making a good, inclusive plan just takes time. An action team was formed in 2001, a working group was in place by 2007, and the adoptions by UNCOPUOS (as we stated earlier) took place this week.
Cost of all of this:
Schweickart: “Money is hardly an issue in this. This is a very inexpensive thing to do. It’s organizational setting the actual criteria, thresholds whatever.” It would only cost 1% of the NASA budget for the next 10 years, and less than 0.5% after that. (The NASA budget request for 2014 was $17.7 billion, so 1% of that is $177 million.)
The panel members emphasized that it’s best to start the search early and find the threatening asteroids before things become an emergency. If a moderate-sized asteroid was discovered only a few months out, it might be better just to evacuate the affected area rather than try to pull together a last-minute mission to stop the asteroid.
The B612 Foundation announced in June of this year that it plans to launch the first privately funded deep space mission, a space telescope that will map the inner solar system’s asteroid population and chart their orbits over the next hundred years. The goal is to find every potentially Earth-impacting object out there.
“This is a very practical — and necessary — project,” Rusty Schweickart, Chairman Emeritus of B612, and Apollo 9 astronaut told Universe Today. “It can be done, it is exciting and we are trying to get the world to recognize that this is a great investment in the future of humanity.”
Caption: Sentinel’s field of view. Credit: B612 Foundation.
The spacecraft is called Sentinel, and it will be equipped with a 20.5-inch cryo-cooled infrared telescope that will scan for space objects such as asteroids and comets. It will be placed in orbit around the Sun, ranging up to 170 million miles from Earth, for its mission of discovery and mapping.
B612 Foundation is nonprofit group of scientists and explorers who advocate exploration of asteroids and monitoring of their trajectories to protect the Earth from potentially catastrophic impacts. Other notable members of the Foundation include space shuttle and International Space Station astronaut Ed Lu (B612’s CEO), project architect Scott Hubbard, a Stanford professor who once served as the head of NASA’s Mars’ missions, and mission director Harold Reitsema, former director of space science missions at Ball Aerospace.
The foundation is named after the asteroid in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s story “The Little Prince” which brought the young prince to various destinations, and originally the B612 Foundation focused on determining the best ways for deflecting a potential incoming asteroid. But it has since shifted its focus to the current project which involves only identifying dangerous near-Earth objects.
“We have been working this issue for a number of years,” Schweickart said via phone, “and finding these asteroids is the next step that everyone agrees needs to be done.”
Schweickart said for years, the expectations were that NASA would be doing a project like this.
“But you know the situation in Washington,” he said. “With NASA’s budgeting outlook and the priorities NASA currently has, it doesn’t appear like this is something NASA could get to for a long time. We decided that, given what is going on with privatizations and with launch costs coming down, this was something on the scale that could be privately these days. And in recognizing the delay of not doing it ourselves, we decided to give it a go.”
While NASA’s Near-Earth Object program is scanning the skies and has found nearly 10,000 objects, or about 90 percent of the estimated objects larger than a half-mile across, according to B612, there are a half million more asteroids larger than the one that devastated the Tunguska region in northern Russia in 1908. Of those, only one percent has been mapped.
Schweickart said the launch of Sentinel would be a seminal step.
“It is the big step to locate almost all the objects of a size that can really do damage on the surface,” he said. “In five and a half years, we can meet very rapidly the goal of 90% of 140-meter-wide objects. But going down to the smaller ones that can still do damage, like the size of Tunguska, we should have about 50% of those that five and a half years. If we end up with an extended mission, which we’d definitely like to do, we should get to 60-70% completion of objects down to 40 meters.”
That would put over 500,000 objects in the Near Earth Object database, and Scheickart said, “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.”
The Sentinel spacecraft is being built by Ball Aerospace and has been described as a mash-up of the Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes, both also designed by Ball. It’s wide-field, 24-million-pixel view should be able to map asteroids down to 40 meters.
B612 is targeting launch for 2017-2018, and their launch vehicle of choice is the SpaceX Falcon9.
Schweickart said Ball Aerospace has been working on the concept and design of this type of telescope for several years. “And we’ve been working with them on a daily basis for over a year now, so we are pretty confident that they can build this and we can launch and operate it,” he said, “but the new part of the challenge is raising the money.”
Currently B612 has specialists working on their funding, “and that is sufficient for now,” Schwieckart said. “As we move forward the costs will dramatically increase, no question. When you start bending metal and building spacecraft, and buying launch services you are talking a few hundred million dollars. But with anything like this, you raise that in stages.”
Since the announcement of the Sentinel mission comes closely on the heels of the Planetary Resources’ announcement of their own plans to privately travel to asteroids to mine them for minerals, Universe Today asked Schweickart to compare the Sentinel to Planetary Resource’s plans.
“Their plan is completely different,” Schweickart said. “We don’t have any relationship with them, but we’ve certainly talked with them. They are interested in developing resources from asteroids, and doing specific site surveillance of particular asteroids that they might want to use for resource development. But they have to know where to go. And our job is to find asteroids and map this territory – which is basically a region like a ‘donut’ around the Earth, so Planetary Resources will be consulting our maps, as many other people will, as well.”
And Schweickart added, “Our project has nothing to do with profit or investment for payback. This is for the survival and the benefit of humanity – everyone on Earth.”
But Schweickart called this territory of asteroids “the new frontier,” and protecting Earth is not the only reason for mapping asteroids. “It is not just planetary defense, it is also resources in the future, and places for human exploration, and it is science as well. We are going to end up with a map that can be used by many people.”
How difficult will it be for the Sentinel mission to be successful?
“You are talking to a technologist,” Schweickart said with a chuckle. “To me the technology is pretty straightforward, and we’ve got that pretty much in hand. But it is a different kind of project than what has been done before, so that is where the challenge lies. But I think this will be a very exciting process.”
For more information on the B612 Foundation and the Sentinel project and how you can donate, see the B612 Foundation website, or watch the video below.