Sentinel Mission Would Spy ‘city-killing’ Asteroids In The Nick Of Time

B612 foundation video showing locations of 26 asteroid impacts between 2000 and 2013

Poor Earth. Always getting whacked by asteroids. Now it’s time to do something about it. This week, the B612 Foundation, a private organization dedicated with protecting the planet from potential asteroid impacts, announced plans to build the Sentinel Infrared Space Telescope to detect Earth-approaching asteroids long before they get here.

The Chelyabinsk meteoroid / asteroid, here seen from a dashcam video, was the largest impact in Earth’s atmosphere recorded by the nuclear test ban treaty network’s infrasound’s sensors since 2000. Before it exploded into smaller pieces, the asteroid measured about 65 feet across.

Data recently released from the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, which operates a network of sensors that monitors Earth around the clock listening for the low frequency infrasound signature of nuclear detonations, recorded 26 large explosions in the atmosphere not from weapons but rather from small asteroid impacts. The largest of them was the headline-making Chelyabinsk fireball that exploded in the atmosphere with the force of 600-kilotons of TNT on Feb. 15, 2013. To put this in perspective, the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had the energy of 15 kilotons.

Another fireball over Murmansk, Russia reminiscent of Chelyabinsk occurred Saturday night April 19. No sounds or explosions were heard but the object burned briefly as bright as the full moon. Video courtesy: Alexandr Nesterov

Most of the 26 impacts were smaller than Chelyabinsk and detonated high in the atmosphere over uninhabited regions like the oceans. Asteroid impacts greater than 20 kilotons occurred over South Sulawesi, Indonesia in 2009, the Southern Ocean in 2004, and Mediterranean Sea in 2002.

“While most large asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire country or continent have been detected, less than 10,000 of the more than a million dangerous asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire major metropolitan area have been found by all existing space or terrestrially-operated observatories,” stated Lu, CEO and co-founder of B612. “Because we don’t know where or when the next major impact will occur, the  only thing preventing a catastrophe from a “city-killer” sized asteroid has been blind luck.”

Sentinel would circle the sun inside Earth’s orbit and look outward to spy incoming Earth-crossing asteroids. The B612 Foundation hopes to raise private money to build the probe. Credit: B612 Foundation

The B612 Foundation (named after the asteroid in the novella “The Little Prince”) will partner with Ball Aerospace to privately build the Sentinel spacecraft that would launch in 2018 into a Venus-like orbit on a 6.5 year mission to find and track 90% of the asteroids larger than 460 feet (140 meters) with orbits that intersect Earth’s. It will also search for smaller asteroids in the 30-45 meter range, large enough to destroy a major city should our luck go bad. B612 estimates an asteroid this size strikes the planet about every hundred years.

Potentially hazardous asteroid 4179 Toutatis photographed by the Chang’e 2 spacecraft during a 2012 flyby. The asteroid is 2.8 miles long. Credit: CNSA

Sentinel will create a comprehensive map detailing the paths of asteroids during the next 100 years, giving earthlings decades of notice to alter their course through one of several imaginative but untested methods.

The Foundation believes that asteroid impacts rates have been underestimated and are 3-10 times more common than previously thought. While some would argue that number is overstated, there’s no denying that discovering more potentially hazardous objects is a good thing. Sentinel scientists hope to find some 500,000 large enough to pose a threat.

This is no fly-by-night operation. B612 was co-founded by Ed Lu, a former Shuttle and Soyuz astronaut, and has links with NASA, which will provide communications, navigation and tracking for the mission with its Deep Space Network.

To learn more about the topic, click HERE for a FAQ on hazardous asteroids and HERE to donate money to the mission.

4 Responses

  1. I think this mission is wise, but I do wonder if there will be an unintended side-effect of expending scarce resources needlessly diverting asteroids that would burst high up in the atmosphere or not impact in an inhabited area. I bring this up because in my limited understanding of the nature of asteroid impact prediction, I am led to believe there is a certain amount of uncertainty as to whether a given asteroid will impact and a large area of uncertainty as to the impact zone. This would seem to be insurmountable given the irregular shape of asteroids and their interaction with the atmosphere providing some significant uncertainty in potential impact zones.

    Given such uncertainties, wouldn’t simple politics and public outcry demand a deflection mission response to any publicized impactor, even if the chance of a damaging/fatal incident was highly improbably (say less than 1%)?

    Please let me know if you think I’m off-base in suggesting this unintended potential side-effect of our increased vigilance towards this hazard. Overall, I think the Sentinel program is a great idea, but it seems like this would be the primary issue that this program would create.

    1. astrobob

      I think the purpose of Sentinel is to find potential impactors far enough in advance so they can be diverted completely away from Earth. The idea is to miss Earth entirely. The probe will undoubtedly find thousands of asteroids big enough to destroy a city but that have no chance of hitting Earth anytime soon. Only an extremely small subset of those might be on a collision course. But you’re right, the orbit of what might be a benign asteroid can be changed by near encounters with other planets over time to make it a threat one day. That’s why the Sentinel folks want to catalog and determine orbits for all the scary ones out there. That way we can keep track of them on Earth and update their orbits (and impact possibilities) accordingly.

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