A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to conduct an interview with members from the B612 Foundation. This non-profit foundation was formed with the goal of safeguarding the Earth from potential asteroid strikes. Composed of several former NASA astronauts, engineers, scientists, astronomers, and individuals from multiple scientific fields, the B612 Foundation is extremely qualified for this task. Since its creation, the Foundation has helped to make several innovations in the field of space exploration and asteroid-strike prevention.
Recently, the Foundation began planning to embark on their latest project: the launch of a privately-funded infrared-telescope tasked with surveying the solar system. The Sentinel Space Telescope will scan the solar system for potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroids. B612 Foundation's efforts are admirable, and a model for the public. They have shown that private organizations can now do what only federal agencies could before.
The name of your foundation is named after an asteroid, B612, that appeared in the novella "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Is there a particular reason why you chose this name?
The mission of the private non-profit B612 Foundation is to protect humanity from asteroid impacts, while mapping the inner solar system for future space exploration. In the book the Little Prince came to realize that “what is essential is invisible to the eye”, an axiom that holds true for humanity too as perhaps the most important challenge facing us is actually the million Near Earth Asteroids in the sky - out of sight and out of mind of most people on Earth.
When did your foundation begin? Who were the people that brought it all together?
The Foundation actually began in 2002, with the same mission: protecting the Earth from dangerous asteroid impacts. However, our strategy has changed. For more than 10 years, B612 founders Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 Astronaut and Ed Lu, three time Shuttle Astronaut and 6-month crew member of the International Space Station, worked to find the technical solutions for asteroid deflection, assuming that the necessary first step of discovering and tracking threatening asteroids would be managed by others. However, it became clear that there was no near-term mission for this necessary first step. Therefore, on June 28, 2012, the B612 Foundation announced its re-focused mission to map and monitor the asteroids of the inner solar system. Deflecting asteroids is a solvable technical problem, as long as there is adequate early warning (decades of notice).
What are some of your foundation's achievements in the field of space exploration and technology?
We have lead the discussion in the scientific and policy circles on the importance of asteroid detection and deflection. We have contributed to the much increased profile of this issue of asteroid impacts in the Washington DC community, and the United Nations (Congress (http://b612foundation.org/congressional-testimony/) and United Nations: http://www.space.com/19840-asteroid-impact-threat-united-nations.html ). On the technical front, Ed Lu, CEO is the co-inventor of the Gravity Tractor. We have also helped shape the general consensus on the technical means for deflecting asteroids (http://b612foundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Press_stmt.pdf) Finally, on a personal level, the leaders of B612 Foundation have been major contributors to the advancement of space exploration (Rusty Schweickart, Ed Lu, Tom Gavin, Scott Hubbard, Harold Reitsema, John Troeltzsch, Marc Buie etc) all have a long history of contributions.
Tell us about the Sentinel Program. What does B612 Foundation hope to achieve with this mission and how?
Sentinel is a space=based infrared(IR) survey mission to discover and catalog 90 percent of asteroids larger than 140 meters in Earth's region of the solar system. The mission should also discover a significant number of smaller asteroids down to a diameter of 30 meters. Sentinel will be launched into a Venus-like orbit around the sun which improves the efficiency of asteroid detection during its 6.5 year mission as it has the sun to its back.
With so many other telescopes and space observatories out there, what makes Sentinel stand out?
Sentinel will create such a comprehensive dynamic map of our inner solar. Because the solar system is dynamic and subject to the laws of orbital mechanics, the individual pieces of territory (asteroids and planets) are continuously in motion. A comprehensive map must therefore show not only where things are now, but also where they are going (think of the Marauder Map from Harry Potter, but much bigger, including a half million elements). Sentinel will be able to map the positions and velocities of asteroids accurately enough measured, this also means that the locations of each of the asteroids can also be calculated for about 100 years.