The asteroid that will hurtle past Earth this week at eight times the speed of a bullet is being viewed by a group of former astronauts as more than a celestial curiosity. It’s a warning shot from the heavens.
The asteroid, DA14, was discovered by a Spanish dental surgeon and space enthusiast using a high-end camera. The rock will pass within 17,000 miles (27,300 kilometers) of Earth on Feb. 15, closer than the moon and many orbiting satellites. It is half the size of a U.S. football field and represents the closest recorded approach of an object of its size.
“This asteroid is a reminder that we live in a shooting gallery,” former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart said in an interview. “We don’t think it’s a good idea to put off protecting life on Earth.”
Schweickart is a founder of a non-profit group called B612 that is trying to raise $400 million to launch a telescope into Venus’ orbit to find space objects that could collide with Earth. So far, B612 has teamed with NASA and raised “several million dollars” from donors such as Steve Krausz, a general partner at U.S. Venture Partners; James Leszczenski, engineering manager for Facebook Inc.; and Shervin Pishevar, managing partner of Menlo Partners.
Groups such as B612, which drew its name from the asteroid home of the Little Prince in the 1943 children’s book, are moving into an area once dominated by NASA and other government agencies, as tight budgets and the proliferation of computing and rocket technologies open space to a wider range of participants.
“They are doing what NASA isn’t,” Humberto Campins, planetary science professor at the University of Central Florida, said in an interview. “NASA is doing a lot, but it could be doing more.”
And B612 is not alone: The International Academy of Astronautics will hold a Planetary Defense Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona, in April.
Other entrepreneurs are participating in the new space race, some with an eye on profit. Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas hotelier, won a $17.8 million contract for an inflatable room that will be attached to the space station. Boeing Co., Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk and British entrepreneur Richard Branson have started rocket-building ventures.
Planetary Resources Inc., based in Seattle and backed by Google Inc. CEO Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt, is working to launch a telescopic space surveyor to identify resource-rich space rocks.
Space “is no longer the reserve of governments and a few astronauts,” said Schweickart, who was part of the Apollo 9 mission in 1969. Also involved in B612 is Ed Lu, a former shuttle astronaut who spent 206 days in space.
NASA says it has found and mapped 1,310 of the largest, most dangerous “near-earth objects.” That total may be less than 10 percent of the number that exist. The agency says it welcomes the efforts of the proposed B612 telescope, the Sentinel.
“Observation data from Sentinel, combined with observations from other sources, could greatly enhance our knowledge of potentially hazardous” objects, Dwayne Brown, a NASA spokesman, said in an e-mail. “We look forward to a beneficial collaboration as the Sentinel mission takes shape.”
Last June NASA signed an agreement with B612 to help its orbit calculation and communication networks. NASA said it also plans to appoint an independent science team to analyze the data provided by Sentinel.
If an asteroid is found to be on course to hit Earth, it can be deflected with a spacecraft, redirected with a “gravity tractor” hovering nearby or, as a last resort, targeted with a nuclear explosion, Schweickart said. The Tempel 1 comet was hit by an 800-pound NASA probe fired by a spacecraft in 2005.
The European Space Agency is working with Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory on a decade-long project on how to intercept and deflect a large asteroid, according to Andy Cheng, the lead scientist on the project.
“You have to do something pretty spectacular to move it,” Cheng said in an interview. “These are mountain-size objects.”
While NASA has been researching the largest asteroids since 1998, B612 started its effort last year to discover and track asteroids that are smaller in size, but could still wreak havoc. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. signed a contract to build an infrared space telescope, which will be launched into Venus’ orbit in 2018 by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, according to Schweikart.
DA14 was discovered in February last year by a group of amateur astronomers at La Sagra Observatory in southern Spain, not at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is now tracking DA14. Jaime Nomen, a dental surgeon who dabbled in astronomy, said his group bought a high-powered telescopic camera and software with the help of a $7,695 grant in 2010 from the Planetary Society, a group founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan to promote space exploration.
It used that equipment to photograph DA14 as it shot close to Earth a year ago. The discovery was categorized while his team was on a sailboat off the coast of Spain, analyzing the images with the help of the on-shore wireless signal, he said in a podcast dated Feb. 4.
“We are trying to fill a niche that’s not being met elsewhere,” Bruce Betts, director of projects at the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, said in an interview. “Most of what we focus on is follow-up,” tracking the flight of asteroids NASA had discovered.
There is no chance DA14 will hit Earth, according to NASA. The prospects of colliding with a communications satellite as its passes their orbit is “very small,” given the relative size of the asteroid to the 20 quadrillion square meters of space at their altitude, according to Mary Urquhart, head of the Science and Mathematics Education department at the University of Texas at Dallas.
The damage from DA14 if it were to hit the Earth would rival the asteroid that slammed into Russia in 1908 and leveled millions of trees over 820 square miles. The asteroid that scientists say wiped out the dinosaurs was about 10 kilometers in diameter.
“One of these days there will be an object heading towards us,” Cheng said. “Let’s hope we know what to do about it.”