Asteroid Watch

A team of NASA alums is building a spacecraft to protect Earth - and you can help.

Fifty thousand years ago, the mile-wide Meteor Crater was formed when a meteorite 150 feet across smacked into Arizona. Is another like it headed our way? (
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“[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.”

Former astronaut Tom Jones, who flew on four space shuttle missions, says he kept watch from orbit for impact craters on Earth, including Meteor Crater, but also Clearwater Lakes and Sudbury Basin in Canada, and others in Russia, India and Australia. “When you see it with your own eyes, you realize that that thin little blanket of air is not going to do much to stop an asteroid if we happen to be faced with a large one,” says Jones, who is an adviser to B612. “We are lucky that we have this filter that prevents a constant rain of destructive impacts. But the fact is that our lifespans are too short to appreciate the violence that the solar system visits upon Earth.”

British astrophysicist Martin Rees, who also is an adviser to B612 and the author of a 2003 book about the danger of an NEO impact, Our Final Hour, said he views Sentinel as an insurance policy. “If we had an asteroid impact on a populated area, it would cause probably $100 billion worth of damage, so if you think about what insurance premium you are prepared to pay…[the cost of Sentinel] is worth paying.”

For Schweickart, stopping an asteroid before it stops us is a no-brainer. “We have it in our capability today to ensure that one of the major threats to the continuation of the evolution of life on Earth is eliminated,” he says. “Now that’s a grandiose task. What we’re talking about there is terminating a process that has gone on for four and a half billion years since the formation of the solar system—of big objects crashing into the planet and essentially doing a Control-Alt-Delete. And here we are, the only life-form that we know about, that has developed technology…to ensure that our evolution continues. So, that’s a hard thing not to take on.”

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