SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In the next few weeks the United Nations will pass a resolution calling for an international consortium to find ways to protect Earth from an asteroid collision. Former astronaut Ed Lu is already on the case, and it's a serious one.
There's a 30 percent chance an asteroid will hit Earth this century with the force of a multi-megaton bomb, Lu told a Silicon Valley audience recently. A direct hit could wipe out a city; if it hits the ocean, an asteroid could raise a 2,000-foot tsunami.
"There's your market need," Lu told a crowd of a couple hundred tech investors. "We simply don't know when the next major asteroid will hit the Earth -- less than half of one percent of all asteroids are known."
Lu logged 206 days in space working on the International Space Station.
Lu's startup, the non-profit B612 Foundation, hopes to change that. It plans to build an infrared space telescope and launch it July 20, 2018. It's expected to find and track movements of 200,000 asteroids a year as it orbits the sun.
The so-called Sentinel will look 30 times deeper into space than Earth-bound telescopes to find a hundred times more asteroids per year than all other telescopes combined. It aims to plot their movements and make the data available to teams of scientists who will plot any possible collisions.
The Deep Impact mission in 2005 showed it's relatively simple to divert an object hurtling toward Earth. "All you need to do is drive a small spacecraft into it," Lu said. "The typical spacecraft weighs 500 to a thousand kilograms and, moving at typical speed, will deflect an asteroid."
So far the B612 Foundation has raised $9 million toward a goal of $250 million to build Sentinel and another $200 million to operate it for 10 years. The total cost is slightly less than the cost of the new wing planned for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or half the price of the new bike lane planned for the Bay Bridge, according to Lu. Space Exploration Technologies agreed to provide a Falcon 9 rocket for the launch.
Contractor Ball Aerospace has completed just 20 percent of the work on Sentinel, which is based on the Kepler space telescope. Its key component is a CMOS imager about the size of a dinner plate. "It's a very, very expensive piece of silicon."
The B612 Foundation takes its name from the asteroid in The Little Prince.
As the classic children's book teaches, "what is essential is often invisible to the eye," said Lu. "Kids see what adults miss, and sometimes the most important thing is staring you in the face."