New Infrared Space Telescope To Be Placed In Solar Orbit Up To 170 Million Miles From Earth
A non-profit organization founded by a former NASA astronaut announced it is planning to build, launch, and operate the first privately funded deep space mission ... a space telescope to be placed in orbit around the Sun. Described as being akin to a combination of the Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes, the spacecraft, dubbed 'Sentinel', would be placed in a solar orbit ranging up to 170 million miles from Earth, for a mission of discovery and mapping.
The non-profit is called the B612 Foundation, which claims a leadership and technical team that includes "some of the most experienced professionals in the world to lead this effort." The president and CEO of the organization is Ed Lu (pictured), a former NASA astronaut who flew three space missions including 6 months on the International Space Station. From 2007-2010, he led the Advanced Projects group at Google, where his teams developed imaging technology for Google Earth/Maps, Google Street View, and energy information products including Google PowerMeter. He is the co-inventor of the Gravity Tractor, a spacecraft able to controllably alter the orbit of an asteroid.
The announcement was made in a news conference at the California Academy of Sciences Thursday morning. “The orbits of the inner solar system where Earth lies are populated with a half million asteroids larger than the one that struck Tunguska (June 30, 1908), and yet we’ve identified and mapped only about one percent of these asteroids to date," said Lu. “During its 5.5-year mission survey time, Sentinel will discover and track half a million Near Earth Asteroids, creating a dynamic map that will provide the blueprint for future exploration of our Solar System, while protecting the future of humanity on Earth.”
Asteroids are a scientific and economic opportunity in that they contain the original building blocks of the Solar System. They are targets for future human exploration, and may contain valuable raw materials for mining. These asteroids are also a threat in that they can pose great risk to humanity here on Earth. Taking advantage of these opportunities and dealing with these threats require not only knowing where each of these individual asteroids is now, but also projecting where they will be in the future.
“For the first time in history, B612’s Sentinel Mission will create a comprehensive and dynamic map of the inner solar system in which we live – providing vital information about who we are, who are our neighbors, and where we are going,” said Rusty Schweickart, Chairman Emeritus of B612, and Apollo 9 Astronaut. “We will know which asteroids will pass close to Earth and when, and which, if any of these asteroids actually threaten to collide with Earth. The nice thing about asteroids is that once you’ve found them and once you have a good solid orbit on them you can predict a hundred years ahead of time whether there is a likelihood of an impact with the Earth.”
Advances in space technology, including advances in infrared sensing and on-board computing, as well as low-cost launch system, have opened up a new era in exploration where private organizations can now carry out grand and audacious space missions previously only possible by governments.
“The B612 Sentinel mission extends the emerging commercial spaceflight industry into deep space – a first that will pave the way for many other ventures,” said the former Director of NASA Ames Research Center Dr. Scott Hubbard, B612 Foundation Program Architect and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University. “Mapping the presence of thousands of near earth objects will create a new scientific database and greatly enhance our stewardship of the planet.”
The B612 Foundation is working with Ball Aerospace, Boulder, CO, which has designed and will be building the Sentinel Infrared (IR) Space Telescope with the same expert team that developed the Spitzer and Kepler Space Telescopes. It will take approximately five years to complete development and testing to be ready for launch in 2017-2018. The launch vehicle of choice is the SpaceX Falcon9.
Harold Reitsema, Sentinel Mission Director and former Ball Aerospace Director of Science Mission Development will lead the technical team. “The Sentinel Space Telescope is a space-based Infrared (IR) telescope with a 20-inch diameter mirror that will depart Earth, headed inwards into the Solar System 40 million miles. It will perform what is known as a gravitational slingshot maneuver off the planet Venus to enter its final orbit around the sun. This will provide the optimal vantage point to map the locations and trajectories of Earth-crossing asteroids.”
Sentinel will scan the entire night half of the sky every 26 days to identify every moving object with repeated observations in subsequent months. Data collected by Sentinel will be sent back to the Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network, which also will be used for tracking and navigation. Data collected by Sentinel will be transmitted first to the Laboratory for Space Physics, Boulder, Colo., and then distributed to education, research, scientific institutions and governments via NASA’s Minor Planet Center, Cambridge, Mass. As part of the B612 Foundation-NASA Space Act Agreement of June 2012, NASA JPL (NEO Center), Pasadena, Calif. will conduct a comprehensive hazard analysis, making orbit determinations and threat assessments.
(Ed Lu Image courtesy NASA, Sentinel image from B612 Foundation media kit)