NASA has released a new desktop application for asteroid detection, developed by NASA and Planetary Resources Inc. based on an algorithm from NASA’s Asteroid Data Hunter Challenge.

Amateur astronomers can use the application to analyze images. The application will tell the user whether a matching asteroid record exists and offer a way to report new findings to the Minor Planet Center, which confirms and archives new discoveries.

The desktop application, which is free, currently runs on Macintosh and Windows computers. A Linux version is coming soon. The application can be downloaded at

The improved algorithm has the potential to increase the number of new asteroid discoveries by amateur astronomers. Analysis of main-belt asteroid images using the algorithm showed a 15 percent increase in positive identifications.

The application was announced during a panel discussion at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas on Sunday.

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Written by Astro1 on March 16th, 2015 , Astronomy, Planetary Defense, Planetary Resources

This video, released by the B612 Foundation, shows an alarming number of explosions (both air and ground bursts) due to asteroid strikes, recorded during the period between 2000 and 2013.


Written by Astro1 on April 22nd, 2014 , Planetary Defense

Boeing / USAF X-37B

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Garretson asks whether the US Air Force will have a role in planetary defense and asteroid mining, in the March-April 2014 issue of Air and Space Power Journal.

Lieutenant Colonel Garretson and other Air Force strategists have repeatedly raised the topic of asteroid impacts over the years. Nevertheless, the Air Force has not adopted planetary defense as a formal mission:

Despite its potential severity, few Airmen seem to have an appetite for a subject not perceived as “real” war fighting and considered a “low-probability event.” An earlier cadre of Air Force Space Command advocates [submitted] a package to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council to establish a formal mission requirement. In accordance with the wisdom of the time, the council denied it. Let’s repeat that: no requirement to protect planet Earth exists.

To achieve an initial operational capability against asteroid threats, Garretson argues that the USAF should complete a survey of Near Earth Objects using a space-based telescope in a Venus-like orbit (estimated to cost about $500 million) and develop ready-to-launch reconnaissance probes (about $150 million each) and interceptor busses (about $250 million each).

Garretson also argues that the USAF should prepare for a world economy that expands outward into the solar system as companies like Planetary Resources begin to mine the asteroids:

Developing the requisite technology allows the Air Force to play a role similar to its function in aviation, whereby the service’s investment in jet engines and large aircraft catalyzed intercontinental air transport—a mode of transportation that now accounts for 35 percent of global trade by value. By retiring the risk for deep-space transportation and noncooperative capture and deflection, we not only would advance Air Force and US security equities in concert with pursuing a global public good, but also would lay the foundation for a revolution in space transportation and wealth generation.

If we wish to become the visionaries who lead America toward becoming a true spacefaring nation—one that survives such long-term existential threats as asteroids—then we must pursue not simply narrow military power. Just as Rear Adm Alfred Thayer Mahan set us on the right course in naval power and as Brig Gen William “Billy” Mitchell did so in airpower, we need to invest in general spacefaring and its supporting industry. The Air Force is missing the boat (or spacecraft). If the service truly wants to be America’s Space Force, it can’t shy away from this “growth industry” and what will likely become the most essential defense mission of a space force / space guard: planetary defense — the single mission that provides a deep-space requirement. To cede this requirement is to fall into the same precedent as the Army Air Corps, which conceived of airpower as nothing more than a supporting function for land power. A space force cannot just look downward; it must look outward to the source not only of danger but also of wealth and opportunity.

Written by Astro1 on April 6th, 2014 , Military Space, Planetary Defense, Space Policy and Management


Earth barely missed a solar superstorm of devastating magnitude on 23 July 2012, according to a new study reported in the journal Nature Communications.

A rapid succession of coronal mass ejections crossed the Earth’s orbit on that day. If the eruptions had occurred nine days earlier, the result would have rivaled the Carrington Event of 1859, the most intense geomagnetic storm ever recorded, according to a team led by Professor Ying Liu of the State Key Laboratory of Space Weather, China and UC Berkeley research physicist Dr. Janet Luhmann.

“Had it hit Earth, it probably would have been like the big one in 1859, but the effect today, with our modern technologies, would have been tremendous,” said Luhmann, who is part of the NASA STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) team and based at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. The coronal mass ejections were detected by the STEREO A satellite.

During the Carrington event, the telegraph system (which was the dominant form of communication at the time) was knocked out across the United States, and the Northern Lights lit up the night sky as far south as Hawaii. A much smaller event in 1989 knocked out Canada’s Hydro-Quebec power grid and resulted in the loss of electricity to six million people for up to nine hours.

If a Carrington-level event hit North America today, damage is estimated at $0.6-2.6 trillion, according to a 2013 report by Lloyd’s and Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc. Damage to electrical transformers would leave 20-40 million Americans without power, some for as little as 16 days, some for as long as 1-2 years. (Another study, commissioned by Oak Ridge National Laboratories, estimates that power outages would affect 70% of the US population.) The lead time for building new transformers is a minimum of five months.

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Written by Astro1 on March 23rd, 2014 , Planetary Defense

Very large asteroid impact, NASA artwork by Don Dixon

NASA had the opportunity to make the case for planetary defense at last week’s meeting of the House Science Committee. Unfortunately, as Jeff Foust reports, NASA Administrator Major General Charles Bolden (USMC-ret.) failed to make that case.

In fact, General Bolden actually pleaded with Congress not to “pour money into NEO detection and characterization,” saying “that would not be the right thing to do.”

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Written by Astro1 on March 25th, 2013 , Planetary Defense

Solar Flare
NASA has powered down the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity as a precautionary measure due to a solar flare.

In 2003, a solar storm damaged a radiation instrument on the Mars orbiter Odyssey. NASA does not believe the radiation from this flare poses any danger to Curiosity but is being extra cautious due to recent computer problems with the $1.6 billion rover.

This shutdown illustrates the need for good space-weather forecasting for in-space operations, but space weather also affects the Earth. It will be important for future space travelers as well.

Written by Astro1 on March 7th, 2013 , Planetary Defense, Space Medicine and Safety

European Space Agecny (ESA) / Johns Hopkins University Advanced Physics Laboratory (APL) Asteroid Impact and Deflection mission (AIDA)

The proposed Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission, currently under study by the European Space Agency and the Advanced Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, now has a target: Didymos, a binary asteroid scheduled to pass within 11 million km of Earth in 2022.

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Written by Astro1 on March 2nd, 2013 , Planetary Defense

A large meteor strike has been reported in Chalyabinsk, Russia, about 1500 kilometers east of Moscow. Reports indicate major damage to buildings, including a roof collapse at a zinc factory, and at least 102 people injured, many from broken glass, according to Associated Press.

The impact reportedly occurred at 9:20 AM local time, or 0320 GMT (10:20 PM EST).

[Update: Russia Today now puts the injuries at 950, including 159 children. 110 people are reported to be hospitalized. Nearly 3,000 buildings are reported to be damaged, including 34 medical facilities and 361 schools. There are no reports of fatalities yet, about half the windows in the city are broken, so there is danger from the cold.]

[Three impact craters have been found, one about 6 meters in diameter. Most of the damage appears to have been from the sonic boom. Based on data from five infrasound monitoring stations and calculations by Peter Brown at the University of Western Ontario, initial size estimates for the object have been revised upward. The current estimate puts the object, prior to entering the Earth’s atmosphere, at 49-55 feet in diameter (15-17 meters) and mass 7,000 to 10,000 tons. The energy released is estimated at nearly 500 kilotons. The event lasted for 32.5 seconds from atmospheric entry to the airborne disintegration. This is considered to be a 100-year event, which can be expected to happen about once in a a Century. Still, it could have been a lot worse.]

[It now appears this object came in on a different trajectory and was not related to 2012 DA14.]

It’s shocking that Near Earth Objects, which have so much potential for destruction, get so little respect. The recent National Academy of Sciences report on NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus, which dissed asteroid missions, is a good example. Perhaps this event will serve as a wakeup call for beltway insiders.




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Written by Astro1 on February 15th, 2013 , Planetary Defense


The airblast from the Chelyabinsk meteor is estimated at 300-500 kilotons. That’s equivalent to the yield of two or three Minuteman missile warheads. Fortunately, the blast occurred at high altitude (10-15 miles above the ground). If the meteor had been a bit stronger (more iron and less rock), it would have held together a a bit longer. The blast would have been lower, casualties and destruction much more severe.

One disturbing aspect of this event is the fact that Russia large military installations near Chelyabinsk. A large meteor impact near a military base could potentially be mistaken for a nuclear first strike, setting off a chain reaction.

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Written by Astro1 on February 2nd, 2013 , Planetary Defense

On February 15, an asteroid half the size of a football field will fly past Earth, only 17,200 miles above our planet’s surface.

This is the first time an object this large has been seen so close to Earth since NEO sky surveys began in the 1990’s.


Asteroid 2012 DA14 was discovered by amateur astronomers at the La Sagra Observatory in Spain on February 22, 2012. Orbital calculations show there’s no danger of 2012 DA14 actually hitting Earth, but it’s a pity we don’t have a quick-reaction sortie vehicle or tug that could get into position for a close look as it whizzes by. Such a vehicle would have a wide range commercial and military applications; the occassional rare science opportunity like this would be just an added bonus.

The Virtual Telescope Project will be holding a live coverage event starting at 22:00 Universal Time (5:00 PM EST, 2:00 PM PST) on February 15.

Written by Astro1 on January 28th, 2013 , Astronomy, Planetary Defense

Merger of two neutron stars, a source of short-duration gamma-ray bursts

A cosmic catastrophe may have occurred in our part of the galaxy less than 1300 years ago. A similar event today could have damaging effects on our technological civilization.

A new paper by astronomers Valeri Hambaryan and Ralph Neuhӓuser at the University of Jena, Germany suggests that a short-duration gamma-ray burst from the merging of two stellar remnants may have caused an intense blast of high-energy radiation that hit the Earth in the 8th century. The paper, A Galactic short gamma-ray burst as cause for the 14C peak in AD 774/5, is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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Written by Astro1 on January 23rd, 2013 , Planetary Defense

NASA Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) asteroid sample return mission

The OSIRS-REx mission, developed by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, is scheduled for launch in 2016.

This asteroid sample-return mission is interesting for a number of reasons. OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer. This marks the first time that resource prospecting and planetary defense have been prominently highlighted, along with science, as part of a NASA unmanned space mission. This should become the standsard model for all future missions.

Also interesting is the way OSIRIS-REx team members have tested their experiments in a low-gravity environment.

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Written by Astro1 on January 15th, 2013 , Planetary Defense, Space Policy and Management Tags:

Asteroid Mathilde from NASA Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous - Shoemaker

The European Space Agency is seeking research ideas to help guide development of a joint US-European asteroid deflection mission now under study.

The Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission would consist of two space probes, which would be launched toward a binary asteroid.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, would collide with the smaller of the two asteroids, while the Asteroid Impact Monitor (AIM) surveys the asteroids in detail, before and after the collision. DART is being designed by the Johns Hopkins Advanced Physics Laboratory in the US, with support from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, and JPL. AIM is being designed by ESA.

The DART mission would also include ground-based observations to measure the deflection independently of AIM. This ensures that the DART impact would return return useful data even if AIM failed. Working together, the two probes would return data on momentum transfer and characteristics of the resulting crater.

ESA is seeking concepts for ground- and space-based investigations to improve understanding of high-speed collisions between man-made and natural objects in space.

The AIDA design study is a successor to the Don Quijote study, which ESA completed in July 2005. Like AIDA, Don Quijote involved two probes: an orbiter called Sancho and an impactor called Hidalgo. Sancho would arrive at the asteroid several months prior to Hidalgo to accurately measure the body’s position, shape, mass, and gravity field.

Don Quijote differed from AIDA in planning to target a single asteroid, of about 500 meters diameter, rather than a binary asteroid. Construction of the Don Quixote probes could have begun in 2006, if the project had been approved. Unfortunately, that did not happen. We hope AIDA will have better luck.


Written by Astro1 on January 15th, 2013 , Planetary Defense

asteroids and comets visited by unmanned space probes

This rogues gallery shows the relative size of the asteroids and comets that have been visited by unmanned space probes, courtesy of Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society.

We look forward to the day when we can show a similar picture of all asteroids visited by manned spacecraft.

That seems like a tall order, but remember — none of unmanned missions existed just a few years ago.

We can rebuild the space program. We have the technology. Johnson Space Center has done advanced concept studies of a deep space ship, Nautilus X, that could be built within the agency’s current budget. Instead, NASA spends its money on the politically mandated Space Launch System and Orion capsule, which duplicate capabilities already available (or soon to be available) from companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

Why should we be interested in the asteroids, when there are more alluring destinations like Mars? Well, it wasn’t Mars that killed the dinosaurs. We’re reminded of a (possibly apocryphal) quote from Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war, comrade, but war is interested in you!”

Written by Astro1 on January 12th, 2013 , Planetary Defense

A cool video from the Near Earth Object Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


Unfortunately, the deflection technology, which they mention at the end, is not even in development. Protecting the Earth’s population from a possible global extinction event is not a goal whose value penetrates to politicians and wonks in DC.

Washington’s blindness to the asteroid threat can be seen in a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus. The report dismisses the value of NASA’s proposed asteroid mission with the following statement:

The committee has seen little evidence that a current stated goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program — namely, to visit an asteroid by 2015 — has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA’s own workforce, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community. Although asteroids remain important subjects for both US and international robotic exploration and study, on the international front, there appears to be continued enthusiasm for a mission to the Moon but not for an asteroid mission.

This statement is deeply flawed. NASA works for the American people, not its own workforce or the international community — and if the committee saw little evidence that the Americans find asteroids compelling, it simply wasn’t looking. Bookstores, documentaries, and Hollywood movies attest to widespread public interest in the asteroid-impact hazard.

Obviously, the NAS committee failed to make the connection between NASA’s manned asteroid mission and planetary defense. The committee implicitly assumes that asteroids are merely subjects of scientific study rather than natural hazards of potential resources. That is a common failing in the scientific community — and one reason why the NAS is the wrong organization to ask for recommendations on space policy. Of course, President Obama and NASA Administrator Major General Charles Bolden have failed to publicly make the connection as well. There is plenty of blame to go around here.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the future of human spaceflight — and perhaps the future of the human race — will depend on people outside of Washington, DC.

Written by Astro1 on January 9th, 2013 , Planetary Defense

Orbital satellite tracks

At the Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo in Tucson, DARPA unveiled a new program to engage amateur astronomers in helping to protect satellites.

The goal of the program, called SpaceView, is to provide more diverse data to the Space Surveillance Network, a worldwide network of 29 radar and optical telescopes which observes and catalogues space objects to spot potential collisions. SpaceView plans to engage amateur astronomers by purchasing remote access existing amateur telescopes or providing telescopes to selected astronomers. The telescopes would still be available for amateur astronomy when not in use by the SpaceView program.

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Written by Astro1 on November 13th, 2012 , Astronomy, Planetary Defense

Vitaly Lopota, head of the Russian space firm Energia RSC, has reportedly proposed developing a new rocket to deflect  Earth-approaching asteroids. Lopota’s statements were made in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta as reported by the Chinese news service xinhaunet.

According to Xinhaunet,  “Lopota said existing Russian rocket carriers with RD-171 engines could be redesigned to produce a rocket capable of destroying an asteroid.” The new rocket could be ready in 3-5 years.

Lapota implies that the RD-170 engine is the only one large enough to do the job. “‘We call them Tsar Engines, which no other country possesses,’ Lopota said, referring to Russian artifacts, the Tsar Cannon and Tsar Bell, which were the world’s largest in their time.”

These statements make little sense. A variety of techniques have been proposed for asteroid mitigation. There is no agreement over which is best, in part due to our lack of detailed knowledge about the general population of Near Earth asteroids and in part due to technical uncertainties in the techniques themselves, none of which have actually been tested in space. More research and development is needed, but no expert has seriously suggested that the size of existing launch vehicles (or rocket engines) is a critical problem.

Lapota is apparently using planetary defense as a lever, hoping to shake loose government funding for a product Energia wishes sell, whether it is relevant to the problem or not. That is hardly surprising, given the desperate straights of Energia and other Russian space companies in recent years. Perhaps he’s learned from the example of US politicians who exhibit similar behavior in calling for development of the superheavy Space Launch System.

Written by Astro1 on November 9th, 2012 , Planetary Defense

A graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics has devised a new method of deflecting Earth-approaching asteroids. Previous work has shown that an asteroid might be deflected by a swarm of smart pebbles. MIT’s Sung Wook Paek has expanded on that idea by replacing the pebbles with paintballs.


Asteroids are normally dark in color. Painting an asteroid white would alter the albedo, or reflectivity, of the asteroid. That, in turn, would alter the tiny, but measurable, thrust which sunlight imparts on the asteroid. Over a long period of time, that change in thrust could produce a significant change in the asteroid’s trajectory. A warning time of approximately 20 years would be required for this method to work.

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Written by Astro1 on October 27th, 2012 , Planetary Defense

Six Italian scientists and a former government official have been sentenced to six-year prison terms for failing to predict an earthquake. The charge was practice. The scientists were effectively tried for scientific malpractice, although the prosecution did not use that term.

The implications of this verdict for scientific research in Italy are alarming. Malpractice suits have had a devastating effect on the medical industry. We hope this sort of thing doesn’t spread to other countries.

We’re all for holding government officials accountable for their failures, but this is ridiculous. No one can know the unknowable. Even meteorologists make mistakes, and weather forecasting is a much better developed field than earthquake prediction.

This verdict could have implications for planetary defense. A major asteroid impact could have effects felt on planet-wide scale. A scientist who fails to predict an asteroid impact might conceivably be held accountable in any country, including Italy. Such fears might cause scientists to avoid the field or to “cry wolf” by always erring on the side of caution, leading to an ultimate loss of public trust.

One prediction we’re willing to stand behind: there won’t be a lot of international seismology conferences held in Rome in the near future.


Written by Astro1 on October 22nd, 2012 , Planetary Defense, Space Policy and Management


A satellite tracker’s analysis of a meteor seen over the United Kingdom on September 21 suggests that it was an Aten asteroid, not space debris as originally believed.

Aten asteroids orbit the Sun at an average distance less than 1 AU (in other words, inside Earth’s orbit). Because their orbits are highly eccentric, most Aten asteroids cross the Earth’s orbit when approaching aphelion. This makes Aten asteroids potentially hazardous objects.

The asteroid 99942 Apophis is an Aten asteroid. Apophis, which was discovered in 2004, made news because it is large enough to be dangerous and was calculated to have a significant probability (2.7%) of hitting the Earth in 2029. Later estimates reduced that probability greatly but there is still sufficient uncertainty that some observers would like additional data.The Russian space agency Roscosmos recently announced plans for an unmanned mission to place a radio beacon on Apophis.

Aten asteroids are not only dangerous to the Earth, they are also difficult to detect and observe. Because Atens spend most of their time inside the Earth’s orbit, their sky position, as seen from the Earth, is close to the Sun. The brightness of the daytime sky interferes with observations by ground-based telescopes. Spaceborne telescopes don’t have the bright sky to contend with, but they have insrument-safety considerations that limit their ability to observe objects close to the Sun. If a space telescope like Hubble was accidentally pointed at the Sun, it would burn out a camera that costs hundreds of millions of dollars (and can no longer be replaced, since the Shuttle is retired). So, operators impose strict limits on telescope pointing to prevent it from getting too near the Sun.

One solution to this problem is the Atsa Suborbital Observatory, being developed by astronomers at the Planetary Science Institute and The Citadel. The Atsa Suborbital Observatory is a fairly small telescope, based on a 14-inch Celestron reflector, which will fly aboard the XCOR Lynx Mark III. Because the Atsa telescope is easily serviceable, it can be pointed very close to the Sun with little danger. Accidentally burning out a $500 CCD chip that can replaced the next day is not a catastrophe like damaging the Hubble.

In other news, a meteor the size of a car landed in the Martinez Hills in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are no reports of casualties or damage, but this is another reminder of the fact that our Earth is constantly being hit by objects from space. Sooner or later, we will be hit by something much larger and more dangerous.

Written by Astro1 on October 19th, 2012 , Planetary Defense

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is planning to place an automated tracking beacon on the asteroid 99942 Apophis, according to a report in Russia Today.

Apophis is a 270-meter asteroid named after the ancient Egyptian god of darkness (and Stargate villain). Apophis was discovered in 2004. Initial calculations showed that it had a 1:223 chance of hitting Earth in 2029, although that estimate was later reduced. There is still sufficient uncertainty that some observers would like additional data.

In 2008, the Planetary Society, Spaceworks Engineering, and SpaceDev proposed a radio-beacon mission called Foresight to rendezvous with Apophis. No funding was forthcoming, however.


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Written by Astro1 on October 8th, 2012 , Planetary Defense

The B612 Foundation’s privately funded deep-space mission, Sentinel, received major support this week from prominent members of the business and financial community.

Steve Krausz, general partner at US Venture Partners; James Leszczenski, engineering manager at Facebook; and Shervin Pishevar, managing partner at Menlo Ventures have joined the Foundation’s Founding Circle, which contributes substantial funding to the mission and pledges continued support in areas of finance, technology and science.

The B612 Foundation has also received new support from the Margaret Jonsson Family Foundation of Dallas, Texas and the William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation of San Francisco.


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Written by Astro1 on September 19th, 2012 , Planetary Defense

The Discovery Channel has done a lot to make the public aware of the dangers of asteroid impacts, through numerous documentaries. Discovery Communications, which owns the Discovery Channel, is doing more than just scaremongering, though. Discovery has partnered with Lowell Observatory to build the 170-inch Discovery Channel Telescope, which saw first light in April of this year.

The Discovery Channel Telescope will spend part of its time looking for potentially dangerous near-Earth objects. It won’t be hunting alone, though. Planetary Resources and the B612 Foundation are planning space-based telescopes to search for near-Earth asteroids. It’s good to see so the private sector stepping up to the plate on this, since politicians have shown so little interest.


Written by Astro1 on September 15th, 2012 , Astronomy, Planetary Defense

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.

[vimeo 44837633 w=700]

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.

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