Astronauts Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart began their decade-long mission to find a way to stop dangerous asteroids from impacting Earth after seeing our fragile blue planet from space. As engineers and trained space travelers, they knew of the grave dangers of asteroid impacts – all you had to do was look at the craters in the moon.
They knew they could pull together the expert team to protect Earth.
So why not?
In October of 2001, Lu and his good friend and colleague Piet Hut organized a meeting with Clark Chapman, Rusty Schweickart and the top 20 experts in fields ranging from asteroid studies to propulsion to power technologies, at Houston’s NASA Johnson Space Center. The goal was to to come up with both impact scenarios and cost-effective solutions. There was consensus among the group that low-thrust methods or a slight bump to an asteroid to ever so slightly alter its orbit would be the most optimal solution. The use of nuclear explosions was seen as too risky and unpredictable to be deemed safe. Other discussions centered around landing a nuclear powered plasma engine directly on an asteroid. They would use the engine as a tugboat to push the asteroid out of its current orbit, just enough to avoid an impact with Earth. Challenges discussed varied from how to efficiently push a spinning asteroid, to how to anchor the engine in a low-gravity environment to identifying problems related to a presence of dust.
While other technologies would continue to be evaluated, the nuclear electric/plasma propulsion combination with a direct docking was determined to be the most useful concept for all asteroid types. The development of this technology would also provide the capability to accomplish many other deep space missions. With no showstoppers present, the meeting ended with an upbeat feeling that the technology existed to plan and execute such a demonstration mission. A change of just 1 or 2 cm/sec in the orbital velocity of an asteroid would be easy to measure from the Earth using radar, and would be enough to avoid a collision with Earth if it were carried out a number of years in advance.
An asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and most of life on Earth during the Cretaceous period. But they had no way of preventing their demise. Humans do, and we realized our group could be instrumental in strategizing how to protect our planet and humanity from future asteroid collisions. Despite the seriousness of the subject, that initial meeting ended on an upbeat note, as the group realized that they had the technology and ability to plan and execute a demonstration asteroid deflection mission. So Clark Chapman, Piet Hut, Ed Lu, and Rusty Schweickart took up the challenge and founded the B612 Foundation in 2002.
In the first ten years as a volunteer organization, the focus remained on asteroid deflection research and advocacy. The team developed several deflection concepts, ones that are accepted today as standard techniques to prevent an impact and over the years, the B612 Foundation was instrumental in advancing the scientific thinking on asteroid deflection.
But then came the epiphany that you can’t deflect an asteroid you don’t even know is headed to Earth. You can’t stop what you can’t see. So, while B612 had found the solution to stopping asteroid impacts – they would now have to turn their attention to the bigger more imminent issue of finding dangerous asteroids before they find us!
In July 2012 on the anniversary of the Tunguska Asteroid impact, the B612 Foundation announced the Sentinel Mission to detect and track the million asteroids with the potential to destroy any major city on Earth. In partnership with Ball Aerospace, the leader in infrared deep space telescopes – the same company that built the corrective lens for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer and Kepler Space Telescopes – the B612 Foundation announced its plans to built, launch and operate a deep space telescope with an infrared lens – the first private-sector deep space mission in history.