With the space shuttle program over and private companies launching their own spaceships, it’s clear that nongovernment organizations are making a stir in America’s space race.
Now the private sector is getting into the space telescope business, too. The first official entrant into this arena wants humanity to locate and avoid asteroids, helping us dodge the fate of the dinosaurs.
The nonprofit B612 Foundation announced Thursday plans to raise money to build an infrared space telescope that would go around the sun, with an orbit similar to that of Venus. It would be about 170 million miles from Earth at its farthest.
The goal: Find and track asteroids with enough accuracy to see if they would collide with Earth in the next century or so. It’s looking for about half a million uncharted asteroids. The plan is to launch in 2017 and operate for 5½ years.
“What we’re really talking is affecting human evolution, by reshaping the solar system ever so slightly,” Rusty Schweickart, chairman emeritus of B612 and an astronaut with NASA’s Apollo 9 mission, told reporters at an advance press event Wednesday at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. “We’re literally beginning to affect and change the solar system to enhance human survival. That’s the capability of which this is a central part.”
Sounds cool, but it’s still in the fund-raising stage. Representatives from B612 declined to discuss the details of the funding situation for the space telescope mission, called Sentinel, but told reporters they were looking to raise a few hundred million dollars.
The announcement joins a wave of privately funded space milestones. Just last month, the company SpaceX launched a successful mission to the International Space Station, making it the first private company to do so. Also in May, Virgin Galactic got clearance from U.S. regulators to test its suborbital tourism craft SpaceShipTwo. And several other companies also are working on spacecraft.
Sentinel would locate and map asteroids, including determining their size. Ground-based telescopes would follow up, making further analyses about composition and other details. Specifically, the telescope would aim to find 90% of asteroids bigger than 140 meters (about 460 feet).
The organization is working with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., which also collaborated with the teams that developed the Spitzer and Kepler telescopes.
The data from the mission will be made available to the scientific community, B612 representatives said, and the organization will not try to monetize the data. B612 said it has not asked for funding from NASA.
The B612 Foundation, which sounds like a vitamin but actually pays homage to the home asteroid in the novella “The Little Prince,” started 11 years.
“We all came together because asteroids were being found, but no one knew anything about what happens if they had our address on it,” Schweickart said.
Today, scientists are aware of three ways to deflect an asteroid, said Ed Lu, chairman and CEO of the B612 Foundation.
One is kinetic impact, or running into it with a spacecraft. Another is a nuclear standoff. The third, called a “gravity tractor,” would involve sending a spacecraft to hover near an asteroid and throw it off course through the force of gravity. In practice, a gravity tractor would probably be used in combination with a kinetic impact, Lu said.
In the first month of operation, Sentinel would have found more asteroids than have been found in all of human history by other telescopes combined, Schweickart said.
“That will be the seminal moment in human history, which goes from civilization that is subject to the threat – all civilizations that live in planetary systems have this threat – to ones that have graduated and passed the test that says: You can now protect your home planet," Lu said.
Lu, also a former NASA astronaut, added, “We are finally at the point where we are capable of passing the test. The question is, will we?”
Whether the money will be raised also remains to be seen.