California-based non-profit B612 Foundation has announced its intention to place an asteroid-hunting infrared telescope into orbit around the Sun. Named Sentinel, the ambitious endeavor is to be the world's first privately funded deep space mission and will aim to map up to 90 percent of all asteroids larger than 140 meters (459 ft) in Earth’s region of the solar system. In addition to these sizable asteroids, Sentinel will further provide data on a number of smaller asteroids, down to a size of approximately 30 meters (98 ft) in diameter.
Originally established in 2002 following a one-day workshop focused on asteroid deflection, the B612 Foundation boasts a wealth of experience and expertise in its ranks, with several former NASA astronauts and senior team members involved. Since its inception, the B612 Foundation has maintained a core mission of both moving toward the exploration of the solar system, while also raising awareness of the potential for a catastrophic asteroid impact, as the project's website highlights:
"An asteroid that is 140 meters across (i.e. one that would fit comfortably inside a high school sports stadium) packs an impact energy of about 100 Megatons of TNT, which is about five times larger than all the bombs used in WWII."
The Sentinel Space Telescope will take approximately four years to build and test, and the B612 Foundation expects a launch sometime in 2017-18 with the aid of a Falcon 9 rocket. It will then travel through space and make use of Venus's gravity to slingshot into solar orbit and revolve around the Sun every seven months while mapping asteroids within the solar system. Approximately five and a half years of mapping should provide enough data to project the paths of asteroids for around the next 100 years or so and, crucially, give decades notice of any large asteroid on a collision course with Earth.
Sentinel will measure 7 m (25.4 ft) tall x 3.2 m (10.5 ft) across and will weigh 1,500 kg (3,300 Ibs). The space telescope will also contain 96 GB of on-board storage and will be designed to be highly autonomous, requiring only once-weekly ground contact.
The Sentinel mission follows in the wake of NASA's own efforts at mapping asteroids and the B612 Foundation acknowledge the space agency as a major contributor in the tracking of Near Earth Asteroids thus far. NASA will also provide valuable technical help to the Sentinel mission in the form of communications and tracking support. However, as all government agencies face severe budget constraints in the current economic climate, the B612 Foundation feel that the torch of asteroid hunting has been passed to privately funded initiatives such as itself.
At present, the B612 Foundation is unable to commit to a definite overall cost for the Sentinel mission, speculating that it will be in the region of "a few hundred million dollars." The team also point out that this is comparable to other philanthropic projects such as museums, arts centers and academic buildings - so perhaps such a sum is a relatively small cost compared to the possible ramifications of not acting to secure Earth from the threat of asteroid impact.
Check out the video below to hear some of the B612 Foundation's members thoughts on the need for asteroid-mapping.
Source: B612 Foundation