This morning at the California Academy of Sciences, a team of former astronauts, space scientists, NASA alums, and other concerned citizens of the solar system announced an unprecedented initiative to place a solar-orbiting telescope in deep space. The B612 Foundation wants to map the inner solar system’s asteroid inhabitants and chart their orbits over the next hundred years. And to do so, it will build, launch, and operate the first privately funded deep space mission in the history of human spaceflight.
As a privately undertaken spaceflight enterprise, the Sentinel Mission is an ambitious undertaking. But B612 (the name of the foundation comes from the fictional asteroid that is home to the title character in the French literary classic The Little Prince) CEO Ed Lu is surprised that it has taken this long for someone to do this. Entities watching the sky, like NASA’s Near-Earth Object program, have estimated 90 per cent of objects to be larger than 800 metres across. But according to B612, there are a half million more asteroids larger than the one that devastated the Tunguska region in northern Russia in 1908. Of those, we’ve mapped only one per cent.
Sentinel aims to map the rest. The infrared telescope will be launched into a heliocentric orbit sometime later this decade that will at times place it 273 million kilometres from Earth. It will scan the entire night half of the sky every 26 days, identifying every moving object. In just 5.5 years, B612 plans to have mapped the orbit of 98 per cent of all near earth asteroids – more than half a million objects total.
The B612 Foundation didn’t originally set out to map asteroids. The group formed out of a one-day meeting in 2001 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center addressing potential asteroid threats. It set about bringing awareness to the potential asteroid threat and seeking means of deflecting a killer asteroid should one ever be detected. But within a few years, it became apparent that humans can’t deflect what they can’t see.