Privately-Funded Deep Space Mission Planned
June 30, 2012

Privately-Funded Deep Space Mission Planned

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Former astronauts are making plans to build and launch their own space telescope to track down dangerous asteroids.

The B612 Foundation, which is made up of former NASA astronauts and U.S. scientists, said it plans to launch the first privately funded deep space mission.

The company said that its Sentinel mission would see that a space telescope be placed in orbit around the sun.

Ed Lu, a former NASA astronaut who flew aboard space shuttle missions and Russia's Soyuz, is the head of the foundation.

He said the project would expand on knowledge about asteroids, and help protect Earth's citizens from potential collisions.

"The orbits of the inner solar system where Earth lies are populated with a half million asteroids larger than the one that struck Tunguska (Russia, June 30, 1908)," Lu said in a statement. "And yet we've identified and mapped only about one percent of these asteroids to date."

Sentinel is planned to launch sometime around 2017 or 2018 on a five-year mission. The mission could possibly be launched aboard a SpaceX rocket.

The foundation said that during the mission, it would "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."

B612 Foundation is working with Colorado-based Ball Aerospace to design and build the space telescope.

The telescope would scan the night sky every 26 days, sending information back to NASA's Deep Space Network, the Laboratory for Space Physics, and research institutions and governments through NASA's Minor Planet Center.

The U.S. space agency already tracks down asteroids through its Near-Earth Object Program. NASA said it has found 9,064 near-Earth objects so far, 847 of which are asteroids with a diameter of 0.6 miles or larger.

"We believe our goal of opening up the solar system and protecting humanity is one that will resonate worldwide, Lu said in a statement. " We've garnered the support and advice of a number of individuals experienced with successful philanthropic capital campaigns of similar size or larger, and will continue to build our network."

The foundation hasn't specified what the cost of the Sentinel mission will be, but it said it will be in the range of a few hundred million dollars, which is "comparable in cost to many other philanthropic projects such as museums, performing arts centers, and academic buildings."

The company said the map Sentinel draws up will give humans years to decades of advanced notice of an impending impact.

"Knowing where each asteroid will be decades into the future means that if an impact is out there in the next 100 years or so, we will find out about it," B612 Foundation wrote on its web page.

NASA signed a contract with B612 Foundation on June 19, 2012, supporting the B612 Foundation Sentinel Mission in three critical areas. These three areas include: the use of NASA's Deep Space Network for Communications, Navigation, and Tracking; asteroid orbit calculation and threat assessment; and NASA experts being poised to support Sentinel Review Team.

The foundation also said that NASA plans to appoint an independent science team to analyze the data provided by Sentinel, and it will conduct a comprehensive hazard analysis with it.