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Ex-NASA group plans private, crowd-funded asteroid hunter

Sentinel sparks space hypegasm

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A group of former astronauts, astronomers, engineers, and the ubiquitous Tim O’Reilly (presumably for the publishing rights) are getting together to try and punt a privately-funded space telescope to scan for dangerous asteroids.

Since the question is not “if” Earth is struck by a large object but “when” (the last big hit was probably the Tunguska event, which happened in Russia in 1908), the B612 Foundation wants to launch the deep-space infrared observatory to a position well away from Earth, to scan for incoming asteroids.

The Sentinel spacecraft would circle the Sun, in an orbit overlapping with Venus.

They say the aim would be to scan half a million “near Earth” asteroids like the one which a fortnight ago came within 5.3 million kilometers of us and turned out to be twice as large as was expected.

Sentinel would be positioned to look outwards and scan incoming asteroids for months, according to Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who is chairman emeritus of the group.

The foundation believes the telescope would be able to find 90 percent of near-Earth asteroids bigger than 140 meters in diameter, and half of those between 40 and 140 meters.

If the funds can be raised for the as-yet-uncosted mission (which B612 says would be in the order of “a few hundred million”), it could begin its mission as early as 2017. The plan is to have Sentinel built by Ball Aerospace, launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9, and operated by the University of Colorado.

Bootnote: B612 is apparently the name of the asteroid home of the lead character in the book The Little Prince. ®

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