A team of NASA alums is building a spacecraft to protect Earth - and you can help.
- By Bruce Lieberman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2013
(Page 3 of 4)
John Troeltzsch, Ball’s designated program manager for Sentinel, has also worked for the company on Hubble, Spitzer, Kepler, and Deep Impact. Sentinel will need a deep space communications system like Deep Impact, a wide field of view and onboard processing power (so it doesn’t waste bandwidth sending data on known asteroids) like Kepler, and infrared detector systems like Spitzer.
Keeping Sentinel’s detectors adequately cold will be a challenge, particularly because the spacecraft will be much closer to the sun than other space telescopes. Unlike Spitzer, which relied on a large tank of liquid helium coolant, Sentinel will use a cryocooler—a mechanical refrigeration device—to keep its detectors cold and free from thermal interference. Imagine a much more elaborate version of the compressor underneath your refrigerator.
“[Sentinel is] working off of a lot of technology that the government did pay for…and we’re putting these pieces together in a very unconventional way for an unconventional customer to do something really cool,” says Troeltzsch.
Still, the mission is not completely independent of NASA. In June, the foundation signed an agreement that will allow Sentinel to use the Deep Space Network for data transmission. NASA is also offering staff to help B612 review Ball’s work, and once Sentinel is flying, the agency will devote resources for analyzing data and assessing asteroids tagged as potential threats at its Near Earth Object Program at JPL, Lu says.
That leaves the money. The foundation announced its fundraising drive for Sentinel last June at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The strategy for raising money is broad, like other philanthropic capital campaigns, Lu says. Potential donors large and small are being wooed at science meetings, at special dinners, and in private appointments. He adds that B612 is looking for sponsors, akin to Red Bull’s sponsorship of Felix Baumgartner’s skydive from the upper atmosphere in October (see “Bullet Man,” June/July 2012). And like any good modern fundraiser, the foundation’s Web site has a donate button that lets supporters give as little as 10 dollars.
Lu’s fundraising tour over the next year will take him across the United States and throughout Europe and Asia. The foundation has treated its biggest potential donors to guided field trips to Meteor Crater in Arizona, “to see in person the incredible kinetic energy released in even a tiny asteroid impact,” Lu says.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson says he’s intrigued by the notion of a privately funded deep space mission. “B612 is a shining example of what sorts of things people can imagine,” says Jurvetson, who serves on the board of SpaceX and is a member of B612’s Founding Circle, each member of which has contributed at least $25,000 to the mission. Doing business in space, even beyond Earth orbit, Jurvetson says, “is not just [the realm] of large space agencies. More countries are competing for space, with more ideas and more space stations. It takes it to a whole new level.”
But B612, unlike ventures like Planetary Resources, which aims to mine asteroids for commercial gain, is focused solely on existential threats, Lu says. Few people can appreciate the destructive power of asteroids like astronauts, who have seen with their own eyes the vulnerability of Earth from space.
Lu remembers looking down on meteors streaking through the upper atmosphere. “Those are sand-grain-size; they are a couple of hundred miles away and you are seeing them,” he says. “There is a tremendous amount of kinetic energy, even in ridiculously small things.”