HOUSTON — The B612 Foundation, a Silicon Valley nonprofit, will attempt to marshal global philanthropic forces to fund an infrared space telescope to identify and track thousands of undetected Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) in a bid to prevent a collision catastrophe.

The foundation’s fund-raising goal, which has not been formally defined, is estimated at “several hundred million dollars,” or about the equivalent of drives to build a large metropolitan symphony hall or historical contributions for the Keck and Palomar observatories. The B612 foundation gets its name from the small asteroid in French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s children’s book, “The Little Prince.”

The cornerstone of B612’s proposed five- to 10-year Sentinel mission would be the commercially procured IR telescope, which would mark the first privately funded, launched and operated deep-space mission, one that adds a new wrinkle to the emerging commercial influence on a U.S. space exploration agenda traditionally driven by government policy makers.

Early I.D.

Through the identification of Earth-orbit-crossing asteroids as small as 30 meters in diameter, Sentinel would provide the publicly accessible information required to intercept potential impactors with trajectory-altering “gravity tractors” — satellites that would rendezvous with the asteroid and use their small gravitational pull to nudge if off course.

“There is a potentially preventable terrible disaster looming. If we can detect and track, that is a key technical piece. By actually knowing the orbits of these objects, you could in principle go and do something about it,” said Scott Hubbard, the B612 Foundation Sentinel program architect and former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, told Aviation Week June 27.

B612 Foundation co-founders Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart, the organization’s chairman and CEO and chairman emeritus, led the announcement of the ambitious mission strategy at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

“Sentinel will discover and track half a million near-Earth asteroids, creating a dynamic map that will provide a blueprint for future exploration of our Solar System, while protecting the future of humanity on Earth,” said Lu, who left NASA’s astronaut corps in 2007 for Google, where he led the advanced projects group until 2010.

“While we have been finding more and more NEAs, no one has been doing anything about what you do when you find one with your address on it,” says Schweickart, the Apollo 9 lunar module pilot and an advisor to the U.N. and NASA on asteroid threat mitigation. “We’ve come to realize that technology available to us can deflect an asteroid, provided you have adequate warning.”

Lu and Schweickart represent half of the 10-year-old foundation’s organizing team.

Sentinel

The Sentinel mission seeks to extend past NASA asteroid-identification campaigns like the recently completed NEO Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEO WISE) mission and the older Spaceguard Survey that relied on ground-based telescopes.

Funds raised by the foundation, which carry the incentive of a tax deduction for qualified U.S. donors, would pay for a solar-powered, scanning 50-cm IR telescope from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. The observatory would draw on Ball’s experience with instrument development for  NASA’s  Kepler, Spitzer, Deep Impact and Hubble Space Telecope missions.

B612 has selected the Falcon 9 as the vehicle of choice for a launch from Cape Canaveral in 2017-18. Though intended for a five-year mission, Sentinel’s hardware would be developed to operate for up to a decade.