Future Tense

Could Crowd-Funding Project Save the Planet From a Deadly Asteroid?

Renegade asteroids have a new obstacle on their collision course with Earth: crowd funding.

Last week, the nonprofit B612 Foundation, a California-based research group comprised of former NASA astronauts and scientists, announced plans to use a privately funded space telescope to track the orbits of as many as 500,000 near-Earth asteroids, reports Reuters.

Aiming for a launch window between 2017 and 2018, the Project Sentinel Space Telescope will be constructed by Ball Aerospace and operated by the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

The infrared, wide-angle telescope will be housed in a spacecraft and launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, according to PhysicsWorld.  It will be placed closer to the sun, enabling it to scan the night half of the sky for nearby asteroids every 26 days. This data will be transmitted to researchers via NASA’s Deep Space Network, a worldwide communications network that transmits data and mission support between Earth and spacecraft.

While a final cost has yet to be determined, it could reach several hundred million dollars, which the foundation hopes to raise through private donors, according to the Associated Press.

Ed Lu, B612’s Chairman and CEO, described this approach as “crowdsourcing but on a grand level” in an interview with the Washington Post. “The chances were pretty minimal somebody else was going to do this,” Lu said. “Federal budgets being what they are, it’s just not going to happen.”

He went on to encourage donors, saying their reward will be getting to “take part in saving the Earth.”

In an interview with PhysicsWorld, the foundation’s secretary and planetary researcher, Clark Chapman, noted that the project’s funding is “somewhere between angel investment and round one of venture capital.” The group has already received several hundreds of thousands of dollars in initial backing from venture capitalists and Silicon Valley enterprises.

However, Timothy Spahr, director of Harvard University’s Minor Planet Center, doubts enough funding will be raised given the economy, saying “this is a hard time.”