How This One Little Satellite Could Save Life on Earth

By Andrew Tarantola on at

Let's face it, Bruce Willis is getting old. We can no longer rely on the option of simply strapping him to a rocket, shooting said rocket towards an oncoming asteroid, and hoping for the best. Luckily, the Silicon Valley-based B612 foundation is developing the world's most advanced asteroid early warning system.

Comets and asteroids fall to Earth regularly. Small diameter rocks burn up in our atmosphere as shooting stars. However, larger ones are potential Earth-enders—rocks with a 200-foot diametre could level a city, and a half-mile-diametre meteor could cause another Cretaceous-level mass extinction.

NASA runs the Near-Earth Object program, which searches the skies for space stones more than a half-mile wide. It has observed roughly 10,000 objects—an estimated 90 per cent of those are in our corner of the solar system—with its fleet of land-based telescopes. Now, what the NEO program isn't looking for are smaller but only slightly less deadly meteors, like the one that leveled the Tunguska region in northern Russia in 1908 with the same explosive force as the Fat Man. Scientists estimate we've only found about one percent of the half million or so rocks of this size.

"That's the urgency of this," Ed Lu, former astronaut and current chairman of the B612 Foundation said in a press statement. "If there is an asteroid out there that may strike in the next 10 or 20 years, then time's a wastin'."

The B612 Foundation is located in Mountain View, CA and is named after the home of "The Little Prince" from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's famed children's book. Headed by former space shuttle astronaut, Ed Lu, as well as a veritable who's who of ex-NASA employees and Ball Aerospace engineers. The foundation has been working since the turn of the century to raise awareness of the dangers of these asteroids and to develop a means to detect and deflect incoming threats. While B612 hasn't quite figured out deflection part of that equation yet, the foundation is already prepping the detecting system—the Sentinel.

The $200 million Sentinel telescope, when launched in 2017, will become the first privately-funded deep space probe ever. Designed by the Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation, the same folks that brought us the Kepler and Spitzer telescopes, the Sentinel shares much of their technologies. The Sentinel employs an HD camera made up of multiple, smaller detectors to scan 165 square degrees per hour for moving objects around 50 meters in diameter. This will allow scientists to generate a map of our celestial neighborhood and begin calculating the orbits of nearby asteroids, creating an early warning system of sorts. "We'll find about a half a million," said Lu. "This is going to be the definitive map of the inner solar system."

The company currently plans to launch their telescope on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, sending the spacecraft toward the inner solar system into a gravity assist slingshot around Venus. The roughly 25-foot telescope will orbit the sun from between 0.6 and 0.8 times the Earth-sun distance and is planned to have a 5.5-year initial mission to find 90 per cent of asteroids larger than 500 feet. It also intends to map out a significant number of 100-foot-diametre asteroids. The infrared telescope will be launched into a heliocentric orbit sometime later this decade that will at times place it 170 million miles 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.

After launch, the telescope will immediately begin to search for near-Earth objects and calculate their orbits, making sure that none of them intersect with Earth's. Being a dedicated asteroid-finding mission and working from space will give it a tremendous advantage over ground-based telescopes. Within a month, Lu calculates that the telescope will find 16,000 objects, more than doubling the known catalogue. Ultimately, he hopes to expand the number of known asteroids by a hundred-fold.

The project will release asteroid trajectories publicly through an existing network that includes the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many researchers are eager to get their hands on such data. At a conference the B612 Foundation held last year, roughly 50 interested scientists gathered to discuss near-Earth asteroid threats. [Wired - B612 - Popular Science - Space - BBC]