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New telescope idea focuses on asteroids

Rusty Schweickart, chairman emeritus of B612, talks during a news conference in San Francisco on Thursday. (Associated Press)
Rusty Schweickart, chairman emeritus of B612, talks during a news conference in San Francisco on Thursday. (Associated Press)

Group aims to prevent massive Earth collision

LOS ANGELES – Who will protect us from a killer asteroid? A team of ex-NASA astronauts and scientists thinks it’s up to them.

In a bold plan unveiled Thursday, the group wants to launch its own space telescope to spot and track small and mid-size space rocks capable of wiping out a city or continent. With that information, they could sound early warnings if a rogue asteroid appeared headed toward our planet.

So far, the idea from the B612 Foundation is on paper only.

Such an effort would cost upward of several hundred million dollars, and the group plans to start fundraising. Behind the nonprofit are a space shuttle astronaut, Apollo 9 astronaut, former Mars czar, deep space mission manager and some non-NASA types.

Asteroids are leftovers from the formation of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago. Most reside in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but some get nudged into Earth’s neighborhood.

NASA and a network of astronomers routinely scan the skies for these near-Earth objects. Scientists believe it was a 6-mile-wide asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

But the group thinks more attention should be paid to the estimated half-million smaller asteroids – similar in size to the one that exploded over Siberia in 1908 and leveled more than 800 square miles of forest.

“We’re playing cosmic roulette. We’re flying around the solar system with these other objects. The laws of probability eventually catch up to you,” said foundation chairman and former shuttle astronaut Ed Lu.

Added former Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart: “The current priority really needs to be toward finding all of those asteroids which can do real damage if they hit or when they hit. It’s not a matter of if; it’s really a matter of when.”

Since its birth, the Mountain View, Calif.-based B612 Foundation – named after the home asteroid of the Earth-visiting prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince” – has focused on finding ways to deflect an incoming asteroid. Ideas studied include sending an intercepting spacecraft to aiming a nuclear bomb, but none have been tested.

Last year, the group shifted focus to seeking out asteroids with a telescope.

It is working with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., which has drawn up a preliminary telescope design.

Under the proposal, the asteroid-hunting Sentinel Space Telescope would operate for at least 5 1/2 years. It would orbit around the sun, near the orbit of Venus, or between 30 million to 170 million miles away from Earth. Data would be beamed back through NASA’s antenna network under a deal with the space agency.

Launch is targeted for 2017 or 2018. The group is angling to fly aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.


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