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Asteroid experts plan privately funded Sentinel Space Telescope

P. Carril / ESA

Asteroids zip past Earth in this artist's conception.

The nonprofit B612 Foundation says it's planning the first privately funded deep-space mission, with the goal of launching an instrument known as the Sentinel Space Telescope to look for potentially hazardous asteroids from a vantage point inside Earth's orbit around the sun.

The foundation, headed by former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, tipped its hand today in an advisory alerting journalists about a press conference to be conducted at 8:30 a.m. PT June 28 at the California Academy of Science' Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco.

"We will create the first comprehensive dynamic map of our inner solar system showing the current and future locations and trajectories of Earth-crossing asteroids, paving the way to protect the Earth from future impacts and opening up the solar system to future exploration," the advisory read.

Scheduled speakers include Lu as well as the foundation's chairman emeritus, Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart; project architect Scott Hubbard, a Stanford professor who once served as NASA's Mars czar; and mission director Harold Reitsema, former director of space science missions at Ball Aerospace.

A spokeswoman for the B612 Foundation, Diane Murphy, told me that the advisory was the only information being made public in advance of the press conference. That means it could be more than a week before we get formal word about the projected cost of the mission, its financial backers, projected launch date or other key details. However, the concept for the Sentinel Space Telescope has been percolating among asteroid-watchers and activists for years — providing an advance glimpse at what the project would entail.

Facing the threat
The B612 Foundation was established almost a decade ago to call attention to the potentially catastrophic threats posed by near-Earth objects. For example, an asteroid strike is thought to have led to the dinosaurs' demise 65 million years ago, and as recently as 1908, a much smaller cosmic impact wiped out half a million acres of Siberian forest.

A comprehensive catalog of potentially threatening asteroids could provide more advance warning of potential threats, giving humanity more time to do something about them. 

NASA has made good progress in cataloging most of the large asteroids that could pose a world-ending threat, thanks to ground-based observations as well as space missions such as the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Last year, the WISE mission's science team estimated that more than 90 percent of the near-Earth asteroids wider than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) had been found. However, scientists figure that so far they've been able to track less than a third of the near-Earth asteroids between 100 meters and a kilometer in width. Such asteroids could destroy a city or cause a "cosmic Katrina" if they hit just the wrong place.

Two Earth-crossing asteroids, 2005 YU55 and 2012 LZ1, sparked headlines in the past year when they made close encounters, and an other asteroids are due to come even closer in the years ahead. The most worrisome space rocks are those that spend much of their time interior to Earth's orbit, where they can get lost in the sun's glare. For that reason, the Sentinel mission's planners want to put their telescope in a place where it can look out toward Earth, with the sun behind it.

B612's action plan
A letter posted to Google+ in January, and attributed to Lu, lays out what appears to be a game plan for turning the Sentinel mission into a reality:

"We now have a detailed plan to build an infrared telescope spacecraft that will within 5.5 years of operation catalog and track the vast majority of threatening asteroids.  We have a fixed price bid from a spacecraft contractor, and are finalizing an agreement with NASA to provide communications and tracking services. The planned launch date is in 2016, with a flyby of Venus to enter the final observing orbit around the sun from where it can continuously monitor Earth’s orbit."

The letter said such a mission would cost several hundred million dollars, a cost that is "comparable to a multistory building or other municipal civic project."

It said the foundation's goals for 2012 were to add to B612's fundraising team, fill some technical positions, continue with analysis of the mission design "leading to a signed contract with our spacecraft manufacturer," and secure an anchor donor. Funding the work planned for the year would require raising $4 million, the letter said.

"By this time next year we should be able to begin actual construction of the Sentinel spacecraft," the letter said.

Since that letter was written, a different venture known as Planetary Resources announced that it had gained financial backing from a bevy of billionaires for efforts to build and deploy asteroid-watching telescopes in Earth orbit — with the ultimate goal of going out to the most promising asteroids and mining them for water and precious metals. Is there some synergy at work here? What exactly will be announced next week? For now, your guess is as good as mine, so feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.