The Private Mission To Save Planet Earth (From Asteroids)

impact event, asteroid

Our Solar system is a potentially world-altering place when it comes to asteroid impacts; planetary scientists continue to find plentiful evidence of multiple and massive asteroid impacts on other planets and the various moons that orbit them…And, of course, there is evidence of “extinction level” impacts occurring in the distant past here on Earth.

Such cataclysmic impact events are caused by asteroids typically 1 km or greater in size, and those with near-Earth orbits represent the greatest “civilization threatening” danger for our small blue planet. Fortunately, the large size of these objects makes them easier to spot; using ground-based telescopes, NASA’ s  has been able to identify “most” of these 1 km or larger Near-Earth Objects (NEO). With sufficient advanced warning, such a massive object — with a calculated path that approaches Earth — could be spotted in time to do something about it (although what to do, exactly, is still a matter of much discussion).

The Smaller But Still Sizable Threats

But lest you feel somewhat more secure knowing this, scientists who study such NEOs estimate that there are about 1 million or so asteroids, 40 meters across or larger (many with masses “greater than ocean liners”) whose orbits would eventually bring them uncomfortably close to Earth. Most of these smaller-but-still-threatening objects have yet to be identified via telescopes. And, although these are unlikely to cause a planet-wide cataclysm like that believed to have propelled the dinosaurs to extinction, these smaller objects are still sizable enough to represent a serious threat to inhabitants on Earth.

An asteroid 140 meters wide could devastate an entire continent while also shrouding most of the planet in post-impact soot and ash. An asteroid measuring 40 meters across could take out an entire city. In 2005, public interest and concern about such impacts had reached such a level that it spurred our usually recalcitrant Congress to issue a mandate to NASA: identify 90% of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that are at least 140 meters across by 2020. To date, NASA has been able to identify just 10% of these. But, if one includes NEOs 40 meters in size or larger, the identification rate drops to just 1%.

NASA, by its own admission, has not kept apace of its Congressional mandate. And, with budget limitations, it is unclear if it will catch up. Most scientists who study asteroids believe it is possible to deflect an approaching asteroid, but only with sufficient mission planning time (perhaps as much as ten years). What is needed, then, is a dedicated, space-based observatory to conduct a complete inventory of these smaller but still threatening NEOs.

The Little Prince Inspires a Private, Planet-Saving Foundation & Mission

Into this asteroid-tracking void has stepped a rather unique private foundation — calling itself the B612 Foundation. Founded in 2001 by small group of former astronauts and respected space scientists, the foundation’s mission is ambitious and straight-forward: identify half a million NEOs from a vantage point near the planet Venus.

The centerpiece of this ambitious mission is the Sentinel — a 450 million dollar, space-based, infra-red telescope. The contract to build the spacecraft has already been given to Ball Aerospace & Technologies and has a target completion date of July 20, 2018 (the date is an anniversary of the first moon walk).

The name of the foundation has a somewhat whimsical but apropos  source: the much-loved book The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In the 1935 novella, the hallucinating narrator (a desert-crashed pilot) has an encounter with an alien (the little prince) who informs the dehydrated pilot that he is is from an asteroid named B-612. * And although the little alien/prince greatly under-estimates the number of other asteroids (“hundreds”), and he is more concerned for the fate of a rose on his home rock than he is for the Earth’s, the profound dialogue between the two inspires great concern for protecting and nurturing one’s home “planet” (or planetoid, in this case).

* Note of Interest: The story, and presumably the hallucinatory episode,  is based upon a true incident: de Saint-Exupéry was a well-respected war pilot turned valued airmail courier, at the time participating in a transcontinental plane race, whose plane crashed in the Sahara desert (he and his mechanic survived); they went three days on limited water and food, then finally were saved by a passing Beduin on camel back.

A Who’s Who of US Space Missions

The B612 Foundation‘s  seminal members are no mere world-saving dreamers or fringe space enthusiasts…they come with real space bona fides…both are former NASA astronauts: Ed Lu, veteran of two Space Shuttle missions and a half year on board the ISS with its only other occupant (at that time): cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko. While on board the space station, Lu recalled seeing a multitude of “shooting stars” flashing over the Earth’s atmosphere, prompting him to note the known impact craters on Earth, and their “constant reminder”…

Joining Lu in the founding mission is one of our great space veterans: Russel “Rusty” Schweikart, who flew on the Apollo 9 mission (which performed the first crucial space test of the lunar module used in the Apollo 11 moon landing) and also conducted one of the more memorable space walks. It was during his space walk (while waiting for a crew member to furnish him with a hammer) that Schweikart had a life-transforming realization. Years later, he would speak of this experience for the first time in public: [You realize]”…you’re a sensing element for Man…you’re a piece of this total life…”

Completing the B612 founders list is astrophysicist Piet Hut from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, planetary scientist Clark Chapman of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. At that time, the foundation mission statement was more of question: How to nudge an asteroid off-course given ten years warning?

One big-tech idea that Lu (also a former Google advanced projects director) and fellow former astronaut Stanley Love devised early on was the “gravity tractor” in which a small spacecraft would hover next to an asteroid just close enough that its gravitational mass could nudge it off-course (and onto an Earth-avoiding one). They also considered the  shooting of projectiles into an NEO — either of which would require sufficient advance notice (up to a decade) to work.

In the following few years, 10 others joined the foundation and its mission; a select cadre of space program veterans, planetary scientists and astrophysicists, including astronomer Dr. Scott Hubbard (now the B612 Foundation program architect), Harold Reitsema (veteran mission director, now retired from Ball Aerospace), John Troeltzsch (also of Ball) who also manages the Kepler planet-hunting mission, and asteroid expert Marc Buie (also of the Southwest Research Institute). Today, there are many more members of the B612 Team, including a good many  “strategic advisers” whose inclusion might surprise you (like a legendary rock-star with a Ph. D. in astrophysics and a highly successful Hollywood film and television producer).

Mission: Sentinel – Kudos and Critiques

The Sentinel mission has been called “a pinnacle mission” (or “heritage mission”)  in that it will be built upon the successful technologies from earlier missions: the Kepler space probe mission, the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, and Deep Impact, the 2005 comet colliding mission. The Sentinel contractor — Ball Aerospace and Technologies — was a central engineering player in all three of these missions, and so has exactly the kind of engineering and operational experience one would hope for in a private mission.

As it surveys and catalogs the locations and trajectories of 90% of the NEOs 140 meters wide or larger, many mission supporters hope that spacecraft’s planned “dynamic cartography” will transform planetary science, besides helping to save the world.

“The B612 Sentinel mission extends the emerging commercial spaceflight industry into deep space – a first that will pave the way for many other ventures. Mapping the presence of 1000′s of near earth objects will create a new scientific database and greatly enhance our stewardship of the planet.” (Dr. Scott Hubbard, B612 Foundation Program Architect)

Even the price tag ($450 million total; 250 million for the hardware, 200 million for operations) for its 6.5 year mission is not considered excessive when compared to Earth-based telescope projects built before WWII (and scaled to 2008 dollars as a comparable fraction of US GDP), according to a financial analysis conducted by Alexander MacDonald,  program executive for NASA’s emerging space office.

And where will the money come from? Donations, of course; the foundation has recently hired a well-respected fund-raiser from NYC. They hope by doing so they’ll raise 20 million in the first year, and the rest over the next 4 to 5 years, during which time, presumably, the building of the telescope would have already begun. Right now, despite the funding pressure, most observers and supporters think its an entirely achievable goal.

Sentinel asteroid detection mission

The Sentinel Space Telescope in orbit around the sun. Image courtesy of Ball Aerospace (via the B612 Foundation website)

However, there are some criticisms and concerns about the mission.

Sentinel’s half meter wide, infra-red telescope (sensitive to wavelengths as small as 10 microns) will help it to catch signals of objects warmed by the sun, which tend to stand out against the coldness of the space environment. From its vantage point in a Venus-like orbit, the telescope with turn its back on the sun and, when within its scanning field, look towards the Earth — allowing a fully illuminated view of in-coming asteroids. In the language of satellite technology: [Sentinel has a] ‘200 degree anti-sun Field of Regard, with a 2×5.5 degree Field of View at any point in time [:it] scans 165 square degrees per hour…’ (for more Sentinel features and capabilities, check out this webpage).

That sounds fine.

The main criticism from some scientists, however, is that the telescope’s remote location from Earth means that it will not be able to spot as many 40 meter wide NEOs as it would if it were much closer to home. To give the reader some idea as to why this is a concern: consider that 4o meters was the estimated size of the (probable) asteroid that caused the famous 1908 Tunguska Blast over Eastern Siberia that leveled 2000 sq. kilometers (ironically, one of the foundation’s former slogans was: “Sentinel: Prevent the next Tunguska”).

However, the foundation’s website description of the mission states that:

“The mission should also discover a significant number of smaller asteroids down to a diameter of 30 meters.”

So, there seems to be some disagreement in the number and size of the asteroids Sentinel could in fact detect from its proposed orbit.

Another cited issue resulting from the spacecraft’s remote orbit (40 to 250 million km out) is that of data transmission; the distance limits the amount of data that can be transmitted back to Earth. To assist the crucial data transmission, Sentinel will rely in NASA’s deep space network of antennas to download data. To help ease the data load, the craft’s computer will make use of image compression technology in which only those images/frames that show a specific change (within one hour) — as when an object moves — will be recorded and transmitted to the network. This technique will reduce the data flow rate by a factor of 1000.

But experts from Jet Propulsion Lab want maximum data so as to increase the odds of detecting a new NEO that may be hiding “at the faintest limit of detection”. Scientists at JPL have proposed NEOcam — a NEO hunting mission based closer to home. In the meantime, NASA’s NEOWISE (the ‘WISE’ stands for Wide-field Infra-red Survey Explorer) should be able to pick up some of the slack in NEO-spotting (the mission was responsible for 134 new finds just in 2012).

But B612’s Reitsema remains confident:  “We’re quite sure Venus is the preferred orbit.”

Looking Ahead – Deflecting NEOs and Geo-Politics

Though currently private, Lu and others at the foundation are open to a private-public partnership in the future, if that’s what it take to complete the telescope.

But assuming that it all goes off on schedule, Lu figures the chances of spotting an NEO in need of deflection are 3 in 10.

Currently, NASA* and other national space agencies (and a few other private space efforts) are actively seeking and working on ideas for deflecting (or even “lassooing”) these NEOs. Recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Johns-Hopkins Research Institute joined forces to form Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA). These are not the first asteroid intercept missions to be proposed. Often with such missions, there is ample ambition, but precious little money (e.g., ESA’s 2006 Don Quixote mission was cancelled due to failure to win funding).

But this new impetus seems to be in part the result of a more favorable political climate, following this past February’s  spectacular mid-air explosion of 17 meter wide meteor (a small asteroid) over Chelyabinsk, Russia, which injured over 500 hundred people (mostly from flying shards of glass caused by the object’s window-rupturing sonic boom). It should be noted that Sentinel, and/or other existing or proposed missions, would not be able to detect NEOs of this “small” size (here, about the size of a school bus) in time to deflect them.

But in regards to deflecting asteroids 40 meters across and larger, it would seem that, ideally, such a strategy (or strategies) should be in the advanced development stage, at the latest, by the time Sentinel achieves its near-Venus orbital (even given the ten years preferred notice time…’cause you never know).

But even if one were detected far enough in advance to plan a deflection strategy, the geopolitics of deflecting an asteroid could get a bit sticky; altering an approaching NEO’s orbit  could shift its impact “target” from one country to another country — until it is (presumably) deflected enough that its path misses the planet entirely. One would not want to be the last country so-targeted before the final (hopefully successful) path alteration. Also, who decides who makes the first deflection attempt? What legal structures are in place to guide this decision-making process?

There are currently a handful of Space Law institutions, schools, centers and societies. For example, there is the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (note: 1959, the UN created the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space {COPUOS}), the European Center for Space Law (ECSL), and in the
US, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for over-seeing commercial space launch activities (this DOT function is currently assigned to the Federal Aviation Administration). Currently, there are at least six international treaties, agreements or conventions dealing with the use of space. And yet, there are currently no official “mission rules” nor any formalized international agreements or protocols for asteroid deflection.

So, while Space Law catches up with NEO deflection scenarios, and until NASA decides on what, if any,  asteroid hunting missions it will take on (and/or gets more funding), there’s at least one early warning, asteroid detection mission in development to give planet Earth an extra edge in the serious game of asteroid avoidance .

There is little doubt that the day is coming, and that day, says Lu, will be “the first global decision on survival.”

Some source material (including several short quotes) came from the Science Magazine news feature ‘The Save-the-World Foundation’ by Robert Irion (Science 23 August 2013; pgs. 837-839)

Top image: (“Impact Event“) ; PD-USGOV-NASA; PD-RETOUCHED-USER.

Bottom image: The Sentinel Space Telescope in orbit around the sun. Image courtesy of Ball Aerospace (via the B612 Foundation website)



2 thoughts on “The Private Mission To Save Planet Earth (From Asteroids)”

  1. Even if ‘Sentinel’ becomes reality, NASA administrator Bolden gave us all a reality check about our chances of fending off an incoming asteroid: “Pray”, he told a Congressional committee in April 2013!! And, as the B612 Foundation knows all to well, we have absolutely no chance of stopping a comet on a collision course… so why worry? Personally, being in my 40s, I want to see NASA and other space agencies send astronauts to seek life (fossilized or thriving) on Mars or establish a base there before either a new world war commences here on Earth or the global economy implodes.

  2. Even if ‘Sentinel’ becomes reality, NASA administrator Bolden gave us all a reality check about our chances of fending off an incoming asteroid: “Pray”, he told a Congressional committee in April 2013!! And, as the B612 Foundation knows all to well, we have absolutely no chance of stopping a comet on a collision course… so why worry? Personally, being in my 40s, I want to see NASA and other space agencies send astronauts to seek life (fossilized or thriving) on Mars or establish a base there before either a new world war commences here on Earth or the global economy implodes.

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