Earth’s First Privately Funded Telescope Could Be a Lifesaver
The need for a near-Earth asteroid hunting telescope is long overdue and now thanks to a private non-profit foundation called B612, Earth will have its first privately funded asteroid hunting telescope. The non-profit organization B612 is made up of scientists and ex-astronauts who thought it was prime time to deliver on tracking down Earths most menacing threat, large asteroids capable of producing an extinction level impact. The telescope will be called Project Sentinel and will be set in orbit around the sun with the primary task of mapping all of the near-Earth asteroids 140 meters or larger in diameter. Just for reference, a 140 meter asteroid collision would cause a 100-megaton explosion which would be the equivalent to dropping about 667 atomic bombs. That of course, is the lower limit. An asteroid larger than 140 meters would produce an explosion much bigger.
The Earth’s history is full of giant impacts, evidenced from the fact that there aren’t anymore dinosaurs to impact craters. It’s as if the planet has been crying out for us to build this telescope and we’ve finally heard its cries. Like Bugenhagen from Final Fantasy VII, we’ve heard the cries and we must try and save the planet if we can. Granted, we’re not facing a giant Sephiroth-summoned meteor the size of Pluto, but you get the picture if you’re old (or young) enough to know what I’m talking about.
Along with detecting potentially Earth-threatening asteroids, Sentinel will also be tasked with creating a dynamic map of the motion of these asteroids to determine the paths the asteroids will likely take in the future and how close they will come to Earth. The B612 have compared it to making the road map of America, instead they’re making the road map of the inner solar system. The early warning provided by this road map would give scientists sufficient time to plan deflection missions, years, or perhaps even decades! Current knowledge is that out of the estimated half million asteroids of the 140 meter or larger variety, only 10,000 of them have been detected and tracked. Clearly Sentinel will have its work cut out for it, but B612 is hopeful that once launched and inserted into orbit around the sun it will only take about five years to create the map.
Sentinel will be funded by a global fundraiser, a first for space technology. As B612 spokeswoman Diane Murphy says, “Our constituency is everybody” While the final cost is undisclosed it is estimated to be in the “couple hundred million” range according to B612 chairman and CEO Ed Lu. “If you think about it, what we are is a small capital campaign” said Lu. “At any given time in the United States, there’s probably a hundred fundraising campaigns larger than this … for symphony halls, museums, performing arts centers.” Surely I agree, but the tricky part would be convincing the ridiculously wealthy that they should part with their money to save the planet.
Project Sentinel will be based at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, CO and data collection and analysis will be handled at the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The telescope will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, another private space venture. It is definitely exciting to see space and the technology that comes with it being opened up to private enterprise! There certainly is a future there, and a promising one at that. Here’s to an asteroid free future!