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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!

Top 10 Impacts and Near Misses

I just read a story on space.com today that reports asteroid 2011 AG5 has a chance to smash into Earth in the year 2040.  The asteroid was discovered in January of 2011 and was observed through September of that year.  The piece of space rock is 460 feet (140 meters) wide and could pass close enough to Earth to pose a threat to us on the surface.  While the odds of an impact are just 1 out of 625, any non-zero probability impact is closely monitored by the international astronomy community.  On its closest pass in 2023 2011 AG5 could shave by our planet at a distance of just 0.02 astronomical units (the distance between Earth and the sun), bringing it to a close shave of just 1.86 million miles.  The probability of impact is expected to decrease as scientists observe more orbits of the asteroid but it is still deserving of high levels of attention.

That got me thinking.  What are some of the closest shaves, or impacts, we’ve had with asteroids?  I’ve put together a list of ten asteroid collisions and near misses.  Enjoy and be horrified!

10) Comet Lexell passed within 0.0151 AU (1.4 million miles) of Earth on July 1, 1770 making it the closest comet pass by the Earth

9) Asteroid 2011 MD passed by Earth at an altitude of just 7,500 mi. which is roughly the diameter of the Earth, the rock was between 10 and 45 meters and it was estimated that it would have burned up in the atmosphere and only produced a few impacting fragments

8) A meteoroid named 2011 CQ1 flew by the Earth at a staggering distance of only 3,400 miles.  It was discovered on the same day as its closest pass to Earth.  The rock was only four feet wide so it posed absolutely no threat to life on Earth

7) A mere two months ago asteroid 2005 YU55, a 400 meter wide rock, passed within 201,700 mi. (0.85 lunar distances)

6) Meteoroid 2008 TC3 entered Earth’s atmosphere on October 7, 2008 and exploded over the Nubian Desert in Sudan.  It was the first object to be tracked as it approached the surface.

5) The event nicknamed “The Great Daylight 1972 Fireball” produced a meteoroid that passed a mere 35 miles from the Earth’s surface.  The meteoroid entered the atmosphere over Utah and skipped back out over Alberta, Canada.  The meteoroid was 57 meters wide  and could have detonated an explosion of up to 2 kilotons had it impacted the surface.

4) 1989 FC was a 300 meter wide asteroid that passed within 0.00457 AU of Earth.  While it never came within the orbital radius of the moon, it passed through the exact location of the Earth six hours earlier which drew many a sigh of relief.

3) The Barringer Crater, also known as Meteor Crater, is an impact crater in Arizona where a 50 meter meteoroid hit the planet approximately 500,000 years ago.  The crater is 0.737 miles across and 570 feet deep.

2) The Tunguska Event was an extremely powerful explosion that occurred over the region of Siberia in Russia in 1908.  It is believed that the explosion resulted from the airburst of a large meteoroid or comet just 3-6 miles above the surface.  The fragment never hit the ground but is still regarded as an impact because it released an explosion equivalent to 10-15 megatons of TNT that was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

1) Number one simply has to be the asteroid that formed the Chicxulub Crater on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico 65 million years ago.  The 10 kilometer wide object that hit the Earth there left an impact crater 120 miles in diameter and killed the dinosaurs and approximately 70% of life on Earth.   The impact packed a punch to the tune of 96 tetratons of TNT.  WOW.

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