NASA Terminates Space Act Agreement with B612 Foundation for Sentinel Spacecraft

NASA Terminates Space Act Agreement with B612 Foundation for Sentinel Spacecraft

NASA has terminated its unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA)
with the B612 Foundation.  The Foundation is trying to raise private funds to
build a spacecraft, Sentinel, to hunt for asteroids.  B612 says that
they are proceeding with their efforts uninterrupted despite the termination.

The B612 Foundation’s goal is to “enhance our capability to
protect Earth from asteroid impacts.”   Its CEO, Ed Lu, and Chair
Emeritus, Rusty Schweickert, are both former astronauts and have focused
for many years on raising awareness of the threats posed to Earth by
asteroids and trying to find solutions to address that threat.  One of
the challenges is finding out where the Earth-threatening asteroids are
and while NASA has ground-based programs to achieve that objective, B612
argues that only a spacecraft with infrared sensors in a
“Venus-trailing” orbit would have the field of view necessary to really
answer that question.

The B612 Foundation is named after the asteroid in the children’s story The Little Prince.

NASA is not currently planning to build a dedicated
spacecraft, although it did re-purpose its earth-orbiting Wide-Field
Infrared Explorer (WISE) satellite to focus on asteroid detection in
2013.  Launched in 2009, WISE was designed to image the entire sky in
the infrared band using super-cooled detectors.  It completed its
primary mission in September 2010 after exhausting the coolant and was
decommissioned, but NASA later determined some of the
instruments could still be useful in searching for asteroids.  Renamed
the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, NEOWISE, it
began a three-year observation program in 2013. The Jet Propulsion
Laboratory (JPL) is proposing NEOCam, another asteroid-hunting mission,
as part of the the Discovery 14 selection process, though competition is
stiff and it is far from clear whether it will be chosen as one of
semi-finalists from among the 16 proposers, a decision expected
soon.  It was also proposed in 2006 and 2010.

WISE/NEOWISE was built by Ball Aerospace, which is partnered with B612 on the Sentinel mission (and would also be the prime contractor for NEOCam if it is selected). 

B612 is trying to fund the Sentinel mission privately, using mostly philanthropic donations although anyone may contribute. 

The nonreimbursable NASA-B612 Foundation agreement was
signed by NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and
Operations Bill Gerstenmaier and Associate Administrator for Science
John Grunsfeld on May 31, 2012.  B612 CEO Ed Lu signed it on June 19,
2012 and was to be in effect for 10 years from that date.   Its primary
purpose was obtaining NASA technical consulting and agreement for B612
to use NASA tracking facilities for Sentinel after it was launched.  In
return, B612 would keep NASA informed of the spacecraft’s technical
characteristics and progress and deliver data from the spacecraft to the
Minor Planet Center.  

The milestones identified in the agreement were:

  • Sentinel mission contract start date with Ball, November 2012
  • Preliminary design review, October 2013
  • Critical Design Review, October 2014
  • Launch, December 2016

NASA spokesmen Dwayne Brown and Dave Steitz confirmed via
email that NASA
terminated the agreement with B612.  Steitz explained that B612 had not
met an important milestone in the SAA — starting Sentinel’s development
— and NASA therefore terminated the agreement because “due to limited
resources, NASA can no longer afford to reserve funds” to support the
project.  “NASA believes it is in the best interest of both parties to
terminate this agreement but remains open to future opportunities to
collaborate with the B612 Foundation,” he added.

B612 Vice President for Communications Diane Murphy also
confirmed the termination, but said NASA had invited them to return to
obtain another SAA when Sentinel’s launch date is closer.   She noted
that “our timeline is dependent on our fundraising — and while that is
going well – it is hard … and taking longer than we first
anticipated.”   She provided a statement from Lu asserting that the
“status of the SAA in no way changes the resolve of the B612 Foundation
to move forward. … We will continue to work independently and together
with NASA, the US Congress and others to see our goals realized.”

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story said there would be three semi finalists in the Discovery selection, but there were five.  They were announced on September 30.  NEOCam is one of those five.



User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.