Asteroids could be heading for Earth right now, and the world should not have to live in fear. At least that's the message of a group of scientists and former astronauts working on the issue. They announced plans today to launch the first privately funded deep space mission in history, a space telescope that would make sure the coast is clear for us.
The SENTINEL mission, announced by the B612 Foundation, would send a telescope into orbit around the sun in order to track small to mid-sized asteroids that could threaten Earth. NASA already works with a network of astronomers to track the most dangerous near-Earth asteroids, those more than two thirds of a mile across. They say they believe they have already identified nearly 90 percent of those deadly space rocks.
However, there is very little data on an estimated 500 million smaller objects that could do us harm - like whatever exploded over the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908, leveling over 800 miles of forest. The chairman and CEO of the B612 Foundation, former astronaut Ed Lu, says this is a problem. He flew on the space shuttle, the International Space Station and Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
"We've identified and mapped only about one percent of these asteroids to date." Lu said at a press conference. "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."
Don't expect that dynamic map anytime soon. Launch of the Sentinel telescope is targeted for 2017 or 2018 - if the project, which would cost several hundred million of dollars, is able to find funding.
The B612 group is optimistic. A press release issued by the foundation said, "Advances in space technology, including advances in infrared sensing and on-board computing, as well as low-cost launch system, have opened up a new era in exploration where private organizations can now carry out grand and audacious space missions previously only possible by governments."
The B612 Foundation, based in Mountain View, Calif., is named after the home asteroid of the Earth-visiting prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince." It was originally founded with a focus on deflecting a potential incoming asteroid. Ideas studied include sending an intercepting spacecraft, but none have been tested.
The group has since shifted its focus to this project, which will seek to identify asteroids rather than destroy them. However, the original mission is not far from their minds.
According to Rusty Schweickart, an Apollo astronaut and Chairman Emeritus of B612, "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."