A private foundation is taking another step to discover asteroids which pose a potential threat to Earth.

The B612 Foundation, founded by astronauts Rusty Schweickert and Ed Lu, has announced the Sentinel mission, a solar orbiting infrared telescope designed to discover and catalog 90 percent of the asteroids larger than 140 meters in Earth’s region of the solar system. The mission should also discover a significant number of smaller asteroids down to a diameter of 30 meters. Sentinel will be launched into what the B612 Foundation calls a Venus-like orbit, which significantly improves the efficiency of asteroid discovery during its 5.5 year mission.

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The Sentinel telescope is innovative in a number of ways. First, is that it will be the first privately financed mission to deep space. Second, it will be a smart spacecraft. Data will be processed onboard by asteroid-detection software. This minimizes the amount of data that needs to be downloaded back to Earth. Onboard processing will be important for future low-cost deep-space missions in order to reduce network operating costs. Instead of being in constant contact with Earth, Sentinel will report in once a week.

Sentinel will be built by Ball Aerospace engineers who built the Spritzer and Kepler telescopes for NASA. It is planned for launch in 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The project was announced this morning in a press conference at the California Academy of Sciences  in San Francisco.

Apollo 9 astronaut and B612 Foundation chairman emeritus Rusty Schweickert said, “B612’s Sentinel Mission will create a comprehensive and dynamic map of the inner solar system in which we live – providing vital information about who we are, who are our neighbors, and where we are going. We will know which asteroids will pass close to Earth and when, and which, if any of these asteroids actually threaten to collide with Earth. The nice thing about asteroids is that once you’ve found them and once you have a good solid orbit on them you can predict a hundred years ahead of time whether there is a likelihood of an impact with the Earth.

B612 Roundation chairman and CEO Ed Lu, a former NASA astronaut who has flown aboard the Shuttle, Soyuz, and international Space Station, said, “The orbits of the inner solar system where Earth lies are populated with a half million asteroids larger than the one that struck Tunguska, and yet we’ve identified and mapped only about one percent of these asteroids to date. During its 5.5-year mission survey time, Sentinel will discover and track half a million Near Earth Asteroids, creating a dynamic map that will provide the blueprint for future exploration of our Solar System, while protecting the future of humanity on Earth.”

Dr. Scott Hubbard, former Director of NASA Ames Research Center, Stanford University professor, and B612 Foundation program architect, said, “The B612 Sentinel mission extends the emerging commercial spaceflight industry into deep space – a first that will pave the way for many other ventures. Mapping the presence of thousands of near earth objects will create a new scientific database and greatly enhance our stewardship of the planet.”

Written by Astro1 on June 28th, 2012 , Innovation, Planetary Defense

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