A privately funded project, the Project Sentinel, will soon launch a space telescope into solar orbit. The Sentinel Space Telescope will be scanning the vicinity of the Earth's orbit for undiscovered bodies with potentially Earth-impacting trajectories
The project comes at a time of growing global anxiety, following increasing awareness of the potential risks to civilization that asteroids in near-Earth orbits pose. BBC reports that scientists estimate that on the average, an object about the size of a car enters the Earth's atmosphere once a year, producing a fireball in the sky. Once every 2,000 years an object the size of a football field impacts the Earth, causing significant local damage. Once every few million years, a rock measuring several kilometers across that could cause global damage impacts.
According to Space.com, the Sentinel will be equipped with a 20-inch infrared telescope that will scan for space objects such as asteroids. The Sentinel will be the word's first privately funded deep space telescope. CBS News reports that the project is funded by B612 Foundation, a nonprofit group of scientists and explorers who advocate exploration of asteroids and monitoring of their trajectories to protect the Earth from potentially catastrophic impacts.
ABC News reports that with the pioneering work by NASA in collaboration with a network of astronomers to track down near-Earth asteroids more than two-thirds of a mile across, there is still very little data on an estimated 500 million smaller space rocks that could impact with devastating effect. Former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, who is chairman and CEO of the nonprofit B612 Foundation, said: “We’ve identified and mapped only about one percent of these asteroids to date. 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.”
According to ABC News, B612 Foundation is based in Mountain View, California. The foundation is named after the home asteroid of the character in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella “The Little Prince.” The foundation was originally established to investigate means for deflecting a potential incoming asteroid. But the foundation has since shifted its focus to the current project which involves only identifying dangerous near-Earth objects.
B612 Foundation plans to place the telescope near Venus' orbit. The telescope will look away from the Sun and thus avoid its obscuring glare. This will boost the power of the telescope to locate moving space bjects According to Space.com, Lu said: "The vantage point makes all the difference."
Space.com reports that the Sentinel will search in the infrared wavelengths. In infrared wavelengths, asteroids appear as glowing, moving blobs against a relatively cold and static background. The asteroid is expected to find the few remaining large near-Earth asteroids that scientists have so far missed. These are space rocks above 0.6 miles wide that can cause global scale catastrophe in the event that they impact on the Earth. The telescope is also expected to identify about 90 percent of nearby asteroids that are at least 460 feet wide that can cause widespread destruction if not global catastrophe.
B612 Foundation estimates that the telescope will find 500,0000 previously unknown near-Earth asteroids in less than six years of operation and help build the first comprehensive dynamic map of our inner solar system. This would be a giant leap forward in our knowledge of objects with trajectories threatening the Earth because only about 10,000 of such asteroids have been documented to date.
Lu said: "We'll find about a half a million. This is going to be the definitive map of the inner solar system."
CBS News reports Project Sentinel will complete its near-Earth object (NEO) survey work in 5.5 years. Lu said: "The line in the sand is for the spacecraft to find 90 percent of near-Earth objects larger than 140 meters [459 feet] in size. That translates into approximately a 100-megaton explosion should one hit the Earth. If we go as long as we think we're going to go, we're also going to find the vast majority of Tunguskas, too."
Tunguska refers to a remote location in Siberia that was hit in 1908 by a huge explosion believed to have been caused by an air burst of a large meteoroid or comet fragment. The explosion is estimated to have flattened more than 80 million trees over 2,150 square kilometers (830 square miles).
Space.com reports that once the map is completed, it will help researchers identify asteroids that are potentially sources of impact risk to the Earth and will also help to identify others that could be exploited for mining activities
Lu Said: "These are stepping stones. Enabling the exploration of the solar system is essentially what we're trying to do."
B612 Foundation has completed preliminary designs for the spacecraft and construction is expected to begin in 2013. Ball Aerospace, the company that helped to develop NASA's Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes will build Sentinel.
BBC reports that while NASA will not be funding any part of the project it will be allowing its antenna network to be used to receive the Sentinel's data.
ABC News reports B612 Foundation says the project will cost several hundred millions of dollars. The organization hopes to fund the project through contributions from around the world. According to CBS News, Lu said:"We can't disclose the final price, but I can give you a ballpark of a few hundred million dollars. Which is, I think, a factor of several less than what NASA could do this for." He added: "We're an international project. I think this is a chance for people worldwide to feel ownership of this telescope, and of the concept that we can protect our planet."