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The Asteroid Threat: The Sentinel Project

Part 3 of a series

Because NASA isn’t budgeting the $450 million estimated to mount a satellite mission such as former astronaut and chairman of the Committee on Near Earth Objects for the Association of Space Explorers Thomas Jones described in the previous post, the B612 Foundation has taken on the ambitious Sentinel Project to launch a satellite mission carrying a space telescope. They hope to have the privately funded satellite built and ready for launch by July 2018. Under a Space Act agreement, NASA will provide technical support for the mission and the Foundation will transmit its data down through the NASA Deep Space Network and provide the data to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Minor Planet Center. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. will serve as the project’s prime contractor and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is the designated launch vehicle.

Former NASA Astronaut Ed Lu shown during an EVA on shuttle mission STS-106. NASA photo

Former NASA Astronaut Ed Lu shown during an EVA on shuttle mission STS-106. NASA photo

“My sense is there is an argument that protecting the United States and the rest of the world is fundamentally a governmental responsibility,” Ed Lu, the chief executive of the B612 Foundation, told me when asked whether it made sense for a private group to mount such an ambitious mission as the Sentinel Project. “But the way we look at it is there are plenty of things that are a government responsibility that the government simply does not do. And there’s a role for the private sector to play.” When asked about the challenge of meeting the Foundation’s annual fundraising goal of $37 million, Lu said, “No one has gone out with any major project in the history of mankind where you raise all your funding up front.  You raise it in chunks and after initial success you raise the next amount. We’re going about doing this with standard management practices.”

“Exploring ways to protect the Earth from asteroids and meteors is a priority for the American people and should be a priority for NASA.” – Rep. Lamar Smith

 

The View of the Asteroid Threat from Capitol Hill

Sentinel space telescope asteroid threat

Artist’s conception of the Sentinel Project’s space telescope, intended to be placed on the far side of the sun to search for possible killer asteroids. Image courtesy of the B612 Foundation

From a congressional perspective, House Space, Science and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), said at his committee’s April hearing on the subject, “Detecting asteroids should not be the primary mission of NASA. No doubt, the private sector will play an important role as well. We must better recognize what the private sector can do to aid our efforts to protect the world.” However, in a May 6, 2013 Space News opinion piece, Smith couched his views in the context of NASA’s current budget situation: “I do not believe that NASA is going to somehow defy budget gravity and get an increase when everyone else is getting cuts. But we need to find ways to prioritize NASA’s projects and squeeze as much productivity as we can out of the agency’s current funds. Exploring ways to protect the Earth from asteroids and meteors is a priority for the American people and should be a priority for NASA.” Reading between the lines, Smith would support doing more about asteroids in the context of a flat or declining NASA budget, as long as preferred missions, such as human space exploration, are not cut.

In a sense, Congress is looking to the B612 Foundation to demonstrate that the private sector can be successful in taking on a significant space research challenge, observes Jeff Bingham, soon to be retiring senior adviser to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “I don’t see any significant funding for this [asteroid detection] in the current fiscal climate,” said Bingham. “Especially when a private venture seems well underway to accomplish a good piece of this effort in the B612 project.” Bingham adds there is “zero chance” of congressional funding for the Sentinel Project mission, “unless at some point it appears that private funding is simply not achievable and the price tag would be an order of magnitude cheaper than initiating a similar government project.”

In our current fiscal environment, with the focus on domestic austerity, it is understandable that Congress is not rushing in to fund a project such as Sentinel, which in another era would be a no-brainer for a nation that prides itself on leadership in all aspects of space exploration and research. So let’s hope that the Sentinel Project and other asteroid detection activities including the Grand Challenge are successful, because they may be the most important space activity any nation or entity is currently undertaking.

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Edward Goldstein has more than 20 years' experience in the U.S. space community. From...