Thursday, June 28, 2012

Asteroid hunters want to launch private telescope

In a bold plan unveiled Thursday, the group of former NASA employees wants to launch its own space telescope to spot and track small and mid-sized space rocks capable of wiping out a city or continent. They could sound early warnings if a rogue asteroid appeared headed toward our planet.

So far, the idea from the B612 Foundation is on paper only.

Such an effort would cost upward of several hundred million dollars. Behind the nonprofit are a space shuttle astronaut, Apollo 9 astronaut, former Mars czar, deep space mission manager and other non-NASA types.

Asteroids are leftovers from the formation of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago. Most reside in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but some get nudged into Earth’s neighborhood.

NASA and a network of astronomers routinely scan the skies for these near-Earth objects. They’ve found 90 percent of the biggest threats — asteroids that are considered major killers. Scientists believe one such asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs.

But the group thinks more attention should be paid to the estimated half a million smaller asteroids — similar in size to the one that exploded over Siberia in 1908 and leveled more than 800 square miles (2,071 square kilometers) of forest.

“We know these objects are out there, and we can do something to prevent them” from hitting Earth, said former Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who helped establish the foundation a decade ago.

Asteroids are getting attention lately. NASA turned down a return to the moon in favor of a manned landing on an asteroid. Last month, Planetary Resources Inc., a company founded by space entrepreneurs, announced plans to extract precious metals from asteroids within a decade.

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