[Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am friends with many of the folks on both teams described below. I have tried to be scrupulously fair to both missions, and to be honest – as I say below – the best thing to happen would be for both missions to be locked, loaded, and looking for potentially hazardous rocks.]
The B612 Foundation is a group of scientists, astronauts, astronomers, and engineers who have come together to do nothing less than literally save the world: they want to find and deflect asteroids that can potentially hit the Earth. While really big asteroids are rare — after all, the one 10 km (6 miles) across that wiped out the dinosaurs only hits Earth every few hundred million years — smaller ones in the 100 meter range are far more common and can still do devastating damage. Even one just 50 meters across (smaller than a football field) can impact and explode with the yield of millions of tons of TNT. That’s in the range of the biggest nuclear weapons ever detonated.
Finding these asteroids is notoriously difficult. They’re small and dim, and sometimes only discovered once they’ve already passed us! The best way to find them in large numbers is to launch a space telescope to survey the sky, tuned to the infrared where these asteroids are far brighter and easier to spot.
Today, B612 made a big announcement: they want to build just such a mission. They call it Sentinel, and it will be the first privately funded deep space mission ever launched. Built by Ball Aerospace and launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, it will be placed into a Venus-like orbit, giving it a good view of the volume of space where these asteroids prowl:
[Click to chixchulubenate.]
The plan is to raise the money philanthropically, like museums do: donations from private funders. Observatories have long been funded this way, and the proposed cost of a few hundred million dollars is roughly on par with many civic projects. Their target launch date is 2017 to 2018, and the mission will last about 5 years.
Sentinel and NEOCam have many similarities: they both use a 50 cm or so telescope, both are tuned to infrared, and both will launch into orbit to get a better view of potentially threatening asteroids. Read More
Asteroid 2012 DA14 is a rock about 40 meters (130 feet) across that passed very close to Earth last month, and will pass even closer in February of next year. Calculations indicate it will pass about 22,000 km (14,000 miles) from the Earth’s surface on February 15, 2013. And it will miss.
I was a bit surprised not to be able to find good images of the rock — only a bit, since it’s small and faint — but the European Space Agency just released a nice animated gif showing it moving across the field of stars:
This was taken by the La Sagra Sky Survey in southern Spain, by the folks who discovered the asteroid in the first place. And, it turns out, one of the reason they were able to find it at all was because they got a small grant from The Planetary Society which they used to upgrade a detector on one of their telescopes! The Shoemaker Near-Earth Object grants specifically go to observatories to help them find potentially threatening asteroids. Since 1997, The Planetary Society has given $235,000 in grants to the cause, which is fantastic.
The threat from asteroids is quite real, and something we need to understand better. With folks like The Planetary Society (and, say, the B612 Foundation as well as NASA’s NEO program) out there doing the research and also helping others, we’re headed in the right direction.
Image credit: La Sagra/ESA
I am extremely honored and pleased to announce that my talk, "An asteroid impact can ruin your whole day", is now featured on the TED website!
I gave this talk in September at TEDxBoulder, and I had a fantastic time. The talks were great, and it was wonderful to be a part of that.
However, I made two errors in this talk. One was logistical; I forgot to say that the "dinosaur space program" line is from science fiction writer Larry Niven, and for that I apologize to him — I usually do credit him, so I’m not sure what happened there.
The second error?
In September 2011, I was honored to be on the speaker roster for TEDxBoulder, which is a local though independently-run version of the much-lauded TED talks. My talk was about saving the Earth from asteroid impacts, something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about.
The talk is online, and I’ve included it here:
The "We have a space program" line is from science fiction author Larry Niven, so I can’t take credit for it, though I modified it to add the "we can vote" bit. Also, this was the biggest audience I’ve ever spoken to, and it was a great crowd. I was almost last on the roster, but the audience was attentive and clearly enjoying themselves. It was a really fun, energizing, and mind-expanding evening.
The other talks that night are being put online as well. If you ever get a chance to attend a local TEDx conference, you should.