Privately Funded Asteroid Mission Passes Initial Soundness Review

Privately Funded Asteroid Mission Passes Initial Soundness Review

The B612 Foundation announced on Thursday that its Sentinel Special Review Team (SSRT) gave a thumbs up on the technical soundness of the Foundation’s implementation plans and mission design for its Sentinel asteroid hunting mission.   The Foundation, led by former astronauts Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart, has a Space Act Agreement with NASA to further the goal of launching a privately funded spacecraft to identify and catalog asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth.

The Ball Aerospace-built infrared (IR) space telescope would be placed into a “Venus-trailing” orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2017 under current plans.  The project is sometimes described as a “commercial” space science mission, but it is more accurate to call it a philanthropic activity.   The Foundation plans to make all the data publicly available, not to sell it or otherwise try to recoup its costs.

In an interview, Lu described the project as being similar to ground-based telescopes such as the Keck telescopes in Hawai and the Allen radio telescope array that were built with money from individuals interested in advancing knowledge.    He said typically philanthropic projects of this magnitude obtain about 50 percent of their funding from a top tier of one, two or three donors, another 30 percent from a second tier of a couple of hundred donors, and the remaining 20 percent from a very large number of smaller donors.  He said most donors to such projects are not motivated by the idea of an “edifice” being erected as a legacy, but by a desire to “give back” and “make a difference.”

An advantage of a project like Sentinel, he adds, is that it is “addressing a problem that will fix a problem” rather than some more nebulous goal.  The problem to be solved is cataloging a larger number of asteroids that could pose a threat to the planet than can be observed using ground-based telescopes. 

The Foundation released the names of the individuals who comprise the SSRT — a veritable who’s who of experts in buiding and managing robotic space programs — chosen by the Foundation or appointed by NASA.    NASA is working with the Foundation through a Space Act Agreement signed in May under which NASA will provide technical advice and use of the Deep Space Network (DSN) to communicate with Sentinel during its 6.5 year mission.  NASA has its own asteroid cataloging activity, but it is limited to ground-based instruments.  The likelihood that the agency will be provided with adequate resources to build and launch its own dedicated asteroid-hunting space telescope is deemed to be very small, hence the Foundation’s efforts to fund the mission privately.

The 11-member SSRT is led by Tom Gavin, former Director of Flight Projects and Mission Success at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which builds and operates many of NASA’s deep space probes.   Other members include Steve Battel of Battel Engineering, an expert on progam management and systems engineering who just completed six years as a member of the National Academies Space Studies Board; John Casani, who managed the Voyager, Galileo and Cassini missions at JPL and led the independent review of the James Webb Space Telescope program in 2010; and Orlando Figueroa, who retired from NASA after serving as Director of NASA’s Mars Program and who just led a team that outlined options for reconfiguring the Mars exploration program in the wake of budget cuts and a desire to make the program responsive both to the agency’s science and human exploration goals.

The SSRT completed its first “Program Concept and Implementation Review” in September and found that the “implementation plans and mission design, as put forward by the B612 Foundation and its partner Ball Aerospace, are technically sound and will lead to a successful Sentinel mission.” 

The task of the Sentinel project is to catalog asteroids that could threaten Earth, but the B612 Foundation’s goal is much bigger — “to protect the future of humanity on Earth while opening up the solar system.”   Lu and Schweickart have been leaders of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) effort to promote international planning for how to deflect any asteroids that might have Earth in its sights.  Lu is co-inventor of the “gravity-tractor” concept to alter an asteroid’s trajectory so it would avoid Earth.


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