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Sentinel telescope to protect Earth

IN A PRESS CONFERENCE at the California Academy of Sciences Thursday Morning (US time), the B612 Foundation unveiled its plans to build, launch, and operate the first privately funded deep space mission.

Called Sentinel, the a space telescope will be placed in orbit around the Sun, ranging up to 270 million kilometres from Earth, for a mission of discovery and mapping.

The Foundation leadership and technical team includes some of the most experienced professionals in the world to lead this effort.

“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 Ed Lu, space shuttle, Soyuz, and International Space Station astronaut, now Chairman and CEO of the B612 Foundation.

The asteroid that entered Earth’s atmosphere over Tunguska, Russia, was only about 40 metres across (less than the length of an Olympic swimming pool) yet destroyed an unpopulated area roughly the size of the San Francisco Bay area.

“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,” says Lu.

Trees flattened at Tunguska in 1908

A 40-metre-wide meteroid exploded in the air over Tunguska, Russia, in 1908, flattening over 2,000 square kilometres of forest.

Spotting dangerous asteroids

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.

But 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 Systemin which we live—providing vital information about who we are, who are our neighbours, and where we are going,” says Rusty Schweickart, Chairman Emeritus of B612, and Apollo 9 astronaut.

Diagram of the Sentinel telescope

The solar-powered Sentinel telescope will be equipped with a special camera to spot asteroids.

“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,” adds Schweickart. “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.”

Sentinel to launch in five years

Advances in space technology, including advances in infrared sensing and on-board computing, as well as low-cost launch systems, have opened up a new era in exploration where private organisations can now carry out grand and audacious space missions previously only achievable by governments.

The B612 Foundation is working with Ball Aerospace, Boulder, Colorado, 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.

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.

More information: B612 Foundation

Adapted from information issued by the B612 Foundation.

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