SAN FRANCISCO — A group of former astronauts, NASA veterans and space industry executives are seeking to raise hundreds of millions of dollars through individual and corporate donations to send an infrared telescope into deep space to identify and track large asteroids that cross Earth’s orbit.
“We travel around in a shooting gallery of near-Earth asteroids,” said Ed Lu, a former astronaut and astrophysicist who serves as chairman and chief executive of the nonprofit B612 Foundation of Mountain View, Calif. “What we would like to do is build a dynamic map that shows the location and trajectories of all these near-Earth asteroids because it’s important for the long-term future of humanity on this planet to understand where they are,” Lu said June 28 during a press briefing to kick off the project at the California Academy of Science’s Morrison Planetarium here.
B612 Foundation leaders are negotiating a firm, fixed-price contract with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., to build the mission’s Sentinel spacecraft and half-meter infrared telescope. The foundation plans to launch the Sentinel spacecraft in 2017 or 2018 on a Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket into solar orbit near Venus. Once in orbit, the telescope is expected to map the inner solar system, cataloging approximately 500,000 asteroids, including 90 percent of the asteroids measuring 140 meters or larger, during its 5.5-year mission, said Harold Reitsema, Sentinel mission director and former Ball Aerospace director of science mission development.
On June 19, B612 Foundation officials signed a nonreimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA to draw on the space agency’s technology and expertise. Through the agreement, signed by Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, and John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science, the space agency has agreed to provide the Sentinel mission with Deep Space Network services, including spacecraft communications, navigation and tracking. NASA also plans to create a science team to provide data analysis, asteroid orbit calculation and threat assessment as well as technical experts to participate in Sentinel mission reviews, said Scott Hubbard, former director of the NASA Ames Research Center and program architect for the Sentinel mission.
Although governments traditionally have led this type of space exploration, “we are at a new tipping point in commercial space where you can plan even more adventurous missions with lower costs and at a faster pace through private efforts,” said Hubbard, who also heads Stanford University’s Center of Excellence in Commercial Space.
A decade ago, the technology needed to complete the Sentinel mission did not exist, Reitsema said. The technology is now available due to investments NASA made in its Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes and Deep Impact, a spacecraft that smashed into a comet in 2005. The 1,500-kilogram Sentinel spacecraft will feature a cryogenically cooled infrared telescope with a 24-megapixel array of infrared detectors in its focal plane and a high-performance onboard computer designed to identify moving objects in pairs of images, compress the data and transmit them to ground stations. The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder will conduct mission operations and data processing for the Sentinel mission, Reitsema said.
The most unusual aspect of the plan, according to space industry officials, is the B612 Foundation’s effort to finance the mission through private donations. Mission officials declined to provide specific cost estimates, but Richard Bingham, a philanthropist who led the campaign to raise $505 million for the California Academy of Sciences, said in a video shown at the press briefing that the cost of the Sentinel mission “is in that neighborhood.” Similar amounts of money are raised through private donations to pay for museums, performing arts centers and ground-based telescopes, B612 officials said. “We feel we are in that family, except our telescope is in space,” Lu said.
The B612 Foundation has obtained donations from several prominent individuals, including: Esther Dyson, an investor focused on aviation, space and health care; Alexander Galitsky, co-founder and managing partner of Almaz Capital Partners, a venture capital firm based in San Francisco and Moscow; Dane Glasgow, eBay Inc. vice president; Steve Jurvetson, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a venture capital firm and SpaceX investor based in Menlo Park, Calif.; and Edwin Sahakian, chief executive of Ardwin Freight of Sun Valley, Calif., and one of the first 100 people to sign up to fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two. The foundation declined to say how much money each individual provided, but listed each under its “Founder’s Circle” category, which promises donors briefings with the Sentinel mission team, webinars on mission progress and trips to scientific events in exchange for a contribution of at least $25,000.
Richard David, chief executive at NewSpace Global, an information service provider that offers analysis of the space industry to investors and entrepreneurs, called the Sentinel mission “a very exciting concept because the return on investment will be saving the species.” Nevertheless, he cautioned that it may be challenging for the B612 Foundation to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars through private donations alone. Because the Sentinel telescope will be more distant physically and chronologically than a community opera house or local science museum, it “will require significant marketing and education to convince donors and the public that Earth may soon be threatened by an incoming asteroid,” he said.
In 2002, Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart and Lu founded the B612 Foundation along with astrophysicists Piet Hut and Clark Chapman to publicize the threat of near-Earth asteroids and determine whether technology existed to counter that threat. They named the organization after the asteroid home of “The Little Prince,” the title character in the novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Foundation members identified three ways to divert an asteroid headed for Earth: kinetic impact by a spaceship, a nuclear blast designed to throw an asteroid off course or a gravity tractor, an approach that would use a spacecraft hovering near an asteroid to exert enough pull to divert it, Lu said.
The next pressing need, Lu said, is to map the inner solar system and identify asteroids that pose a threat because it may take decades to plan and conduct the type of mission needed to divert them.