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IDENTIFYING NEAR-EARTH OBJECTS

A GOAL of the B612 Foundation is to save the world. Named for asteroid B-612 in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 book The Little Prince, the B612 Foundation plans to do this by fulfilling a mandate delivered by the U.S. Congress in 2005: Identify 90 percent of world-threatening Near-Earth Objects by the year 2020.

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There’s no lack of Near-Earth Objects. These orbits identify known NEOs of more than 460 ft. across—the most dangerous, should they collide with Earth. This and other images from Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 23 August 2013.

What characterizes a world-threatening NEO?

The Chelyabinsk Event, February 15, 2013, was caused by an object perhaps 56 ft. across—a tiny one, relatively speaking, with little hope of early identification. Its explosion at 60,000 ft. broke windows in central Russia and injured more than 1000 people, most by flying glass.

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When a small asteroid destructed over Chelyabinsk, Russia, earlier this year, it caught everyone by surprise. See www.wp.me/p2ETap-SU.

The 1908 Tunguska Event, an asteroid perhaps 130 ft. across, flattened more than 830 sq. mi. of Siberian wilderness.

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Tunguska, Russia, had likely the largest asteroid encounter of recent history, its blast equivalent to 1000 times that of Hiroshima’s. Image from NASA.

By contrast, the Yucatan Event, 66 million years ago, destroyed much of the life on Earth with an object perhaps 6.2 miles in diameter. Such events are thankfully infrequent.

The 2005 U.S. Congressional mandate concerns NEOs larger than 460 ft. across. Far behind its 2020 schedule, maybe 10 percent have been catalogued.

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Former NASA astronauts Ed Lu, top, and Rusty Schweickart are the guiding lights of the B612 Foundation.

This lethargy prompted two astronauts, Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart, to establish the B612 Foundation. According to Science, they assembled a list of the 10 best-qualified people in the world for this activity, “and we hired them all.” Once launched, their Sentinel project is to complete the mandate’s goal in 6 1/2 years, with additional cataloguing of perhaps 50 percent of the 130-ft. variety.

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Sentinel is a space telescope designed for sighting NEOs from a Venus-like orbit.

The Sentinel’s 20-in.-wide telescope will spot NEOs through infrared detectors that catch the asteroids’ warmth from the sun. Plans are for a Sentinel launch on July 20, 2018, 49th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon.

The Sentinel will reside in an orbit similar to that of Venus. The idea of this remote location is to have it looking outward, away from the sun, toward Earth. There are tradeoffs, however: One challenge is data communication across the 25 million to 155 million miles from its orbit to Earth. B612 has signed an agreement with NASA to use the latter’s Deep Space Network of radio communication, with data reduction tricks applied to optimize network use.

So what happens when an NEO is identified?

Suppose it’s a significant one, say of a half-mile across, large enough to destroy part of a continent. The first step is to refine its orbit to state-of-the-art precision. In most cases, because of the vastness of space, this refinement of orbit will place the NEO into the “Near” category, a close flyby but no collision.

What if collision appears likely?

It’s assumed that this identification comes with at least a 10-year lead time. Even then, it generates geopolitical complexities hitherto never encountered by mankind. Theoretical research has delved into nudging an asteroid’s orbit—but what if this merely swaps one country’s impact for another’s?

Notes B612’s Rusty Schweickart, “In some ways this will be the first global decision for survival. Will we recognize our commonality well enough to overcome our differences?”

A non-governmental organization, B612 has gone about its funding in a rational way. Sentinel involves a $250 million contract with Ball Aerospace, with another $200 million dedicated to its launch, operation and staffing.

To oversee financial aspects, B612 hired Karen Putman, a specialist in museum fundraising. She observes in Science that Sentinel’s $450 million costs are comparable to funding a new wing of a major art museum.

Only this one does more than enrich our lives—it could well preserve them. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013

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