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Asteroid Hunting Gets Not-for-Profit and Commercial Boosts

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

July 12, 2012

Asteroid Hunting Gets Not-for-Profit and Commercial Boosts

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Over the past 30 days, the stock on asteroids has gone up. The B612 Foundation announced its formal effort to put a privately-funded deep space telescope around the sun to chart the estimated half million large asteroids floating around in the inner solar system that pose a threat to life on earth. Meanwhile, Planetary Resources has reserved space on Virgin Galactic's newly announced LauncherOne to put its asteroid hunting mini-satellites into orbit.

B612, deriving its name from the name of the asteroid in "Le Petite Prince," is an educational 501(c)3 not-for-profit dedicated to space exploration and protecting humanity from asteroid impacts. The Sentinel Mission, announced on June 28, that it will build, launch, and operate an infrared space telescope to map all the larger NEOs (Near Earth Objects) within the inner solar system.

Sentinel will be launched into space onboard a SpaceX (News - Alert) Falcon 9 in the 2017-2018 time frame, traveling around Venus for a slingshot maneuver to put it into its final orbit. Once in place, its 20 inch diameter telescope will look "back," scanning the entire "night" half of the sky ever 26 days. Repeated observations over its 5.5 year mission should provide a detailed map allowing for the prediction of asteroid movements for more than 100 years into the future.

The Sentinel mission is estimated to cost "a few hundred million" dollars to build the satellite, plus launch and operations costs. B612 puts the price tag (News - Alert) into perspective, comparing it to other private efforts for such things as museums, performing arts centers, and academic buildings. More details on how the organization plans to raise the money will be forthcoming in a few months.

Ball Aerospace has already designed and will build the infrared space telescope. Given that B612 is a 501(c)3 organization, Ball could conceivably work out a price deal for building the satellite as a "donation" in exchange for some tax credits. 

B612 says its mapping mission is astrometrics -- mapping out where objects are in the sky. The data will be made available through NASA, which is providing communications, tracking and technical support under a Space Act Agreement; NASA had originally wanted to do this mission, but couldnt get Congress to shell out the money.

More detailed information about NEOs, such as if they have usable water or platinum-group metals for mining, will end up being the province of Planetary Resources for more detailed analysis.   On June 11, Planetary announced it is be one of the first customers for Virgin Galactic's air-launched LauncherOne system.   Planetary has committed to multiple launch opportunities with Virgin, including putting up its Arkyd-100 low Earth orbit (LEO) space telescopes.

Virgin's LauncherOne will be capable of putting up to 500 pounds (225kb) into orbit for prices below $10 million. Since Arkyd 100 series satellites are expected to mass between 30 to 50 kilograms, it is conceivable that two or more telescopes could be put into orbit on a single launch. Planetary Resources has discussed putting "swarms" of upgraded Arkyd satellites into orbit to chase and perform detailed recon of potential mining targets. 

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Edited by Brooke Neuman

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