Whistling Past the Graveyard of Asteroid Detection

Early last week, news media reported that NASA has terminated its Space Act Agreement with the B612 Foundation due its failure to meet specified milestones, namely beginning development of the $350-$450 million Sentinel mission. B612 was founded by former astronauts Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickert, for the purpose of raising awareness about asteroid defense by funding and launching a spacecraft into a Venus trailing orbit to hunt for potential killer Earth crossing asteroids.  In contrast to some less ambitious space projects which have enjoyed surprising success on crowd funding site such as Kickstarter, B612 has thus far found little enthusiasm for its quest to protect the planet.

Apparently Forbes magazine agrees:

“In its quest to map hazardous asteroids and defend Earth from them, the Sentinel mission was hoping to raise $450 million, and then partner with NASA to launch its satellites for tracking purposes. They’ve fallen well short of their goal, and NASA is terminating the partnership indefinitely due to missed deadlines. Normally, I’ll take any excuse to increase excitement and funding for space exploration, but I’m happy to see resources diverted elsewhere. There’s a whole Universe out there to explore, and a whole planet that we can all work to improve. Defending us from asteroids, from a reasonable cost-benefit analysis, simply isn’t worth the investment, statistically.

There are real dangers to Earth (and to the humans on it) facing us today, but asteroids aren’t one of them. If our species sticks around for another few thousand years, it will be time to make that investment. But until then? We’ve got a planet to save, and an entire Universe to discover.”

So which is it? Wait around for a couple of millennium for save up for such an “investment”  or go have an “entire Universe” to discover, (no budget challenge there). The latter course might begin with the humble aspirations of looking around our own neighborhood first.

Whatever the fortunes of B612, which isn’t giving up just yet, this is a problem (detection) which will likely be solved before the next decade is out. In this first place, B612’s biggest obstacle may be that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wants to take a crack at NEA detection. JPL’s s Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) project has been selected as one of five finalists in the latest round of Discovery Class mission proposals. What’s more, the agency is reportedly considering the selection of two missions in this cycle, a surprise development which would clearly increase NEOCam’s odds of being funded. If that comes to pass, and it is difficult to see how the NEOCam proposal isn’t already having a chilling effect, B612 will have an even steeper mountain to climb.

In the end however, even if the space agency does not select NEOCam for the development, it is not the danger posed by NEA’s, but the vast resources they contain which is likely going to put detection efforts into overdrive. With companies such as Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries and Shackleton Energy all making credible progress in advancing their respective business plans for harvesting resources in near space, be it NEA’s or the Moon, the window for a statistically unlikely killer asteroid to approach unnoticed may be closing faster than anyone thinks.


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