A space telescope to thwart deadly asteroids: Donations needed

NASA has an eye on the sky for massive asteroids, the kind that could turn our planet to pulp. But “small” asteroids -- the ones that could simply spur tsunamis, 100-megaton-type explosions and widespread death and destruction -- aren’t a priority with NASA.

What the world needs is a privately funded telescope to keep an eye on the skies, says the B612 Foundation, spearheaded by a former NASA astronaut. The group, launched about 10 years ago, is now raising funds for just such a telescope -- called the Sentinel. (B612 is the name of the asteroid home of the Little Prince, from the best-selling children’s novella of 1943, “Le Petit Prince” – the most famous work of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.)

The space agency is “extremely budget-constrained,” noted Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University engineering professor and the program architect for the Sentinel telescope project. He spoke to the Los Angeles Times on Thursday morning about the new fund-raising effort for the telescope -- a project that, he says, has “planetary protection” at its heart.

Thursday’s fund-raising kickoff for the telescope coincides with the 104th anniversary of the Tunguska explosion in Siberia. On June 30, 1908, Hubbard said, experts believe an asteroid about 150 feet across exploded over Siberia in midair, devastating a large area.


“It didn’t kill anything probably but reindeer and musk ox,” said Hubbard (no relation to this writer), “but ... every tree was flattened for maybe a radius of 50 miles. This was a very, very powerful event ... a 100-megaton event.”

The impact that created Meteor Crater in Arizona -- 700 feet deep and 4,000 feet wide -- was likely similar to a 20- or 30-megaton explosion, he said.

“Even small asteroids can be extremely destructive and quite powerfully impact where they hit. Or if they explode in the air, it’s like an air-burst bomb.”

So the team behind the Sentinel aims to launch a spacecraft carrying the telescope in 2017 or 2018. With an orbit around the sun roughly similar to that of Venus, Hubbard said, the craft would survey and map the inner solar system for 5 1/2 years, looking for objects as small as 120 feet across. The team hopes to give those on Earth warnings of catastrophic impacts years in advance.

According to the Sentinel team, only about 10,000 of the more than half-million asteroids whose orbits cross Earth’s -- space rocks of the size in the Tunguska event -- have been discovered and tracked.

Still, even Tunguska-type events are not common occurrences -- Hubbard said model-based statistics put those at about once every 300 years, with the extinction-type events at every 60 million to 70 million years.

And, as noted in the Washington Post, there’s some doubt as to whether Sentinel could see all possible threats floating around in space. Tim Spahr of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., told the news outlet that that was a “spectacular” challenge.

Still, it’s an effort that the B612 Foundation believes is worthwhile. The foundation was begun about 10 years ago by former astronaut Russell L. Schweickart. Another former NASA astronaut, Ed Lu, is the current chairman of the foundation, and Hubbard is former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.


The foundation has designed the telescope, and Ball Aerospace of Colorado has signed on to build it. NASA has agreed to allow use of its radio dishes for communcation, Hubbard said, and also is supplying some technical experts and a science team that will help gather and interpret data.

Now it’s fund-raising time. But the amount of funds that B612 is hoping to raise is fuzzy. The organization likens this project to “philanthropic projects such as museums, performing arts centers and academic buildings.”

For the spacecraft alone, however, the group is estimating that it will need hundreds of millions of dollars. B612 has among its goals this lofty one: demonstrating “the power of private organizations ... to carry out awe-inspiring projects for global good.”

Perhaps the foundation could consider a corporate sponsor. Would the foundation be willing to sell naming rights for the telescope?


Or would the foundation consider the reality-show route, which the team behind Mars One has taken? That project aims to fund an effort to have a human colony on Mars by 2023 with a “media spectacle.”

“We’re not in the reality show business,” Hubbard said. “Most of the people involved in this have a very deep and serious space science background.”

It’s a philanthropic effort, he says: “We’re not intending to sell data. Data will be passed on to NASA and then to the whole world.”

But, he said, the foundation welcomes “any philanthropic contribution.” And if the contributor is of high net worth? The foundation is willing to talk.



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