* Nonprofit seeking donations for infrared telescope
* Observatory to launch in 2017 or 2018
* Telescope could track 500,000 asteroids
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., June 28 A California space
research group plans to build, launch and operate a privately
funded space telescope to hunt for asteroids that may be on a
collision course with Earth, project managers said on Thursday.
The B612 Foundation - named after a fictional planet in the
book "The Little Prince" - is counting on private donors to
raise money for the wide-angle, infrared telescope and its
operations, estimated at a few hundred million dollars.
The goal is to chart 500,000 asteroids that fly relatively
close to Earth.
The telescope, called Sentinel, will be positioned closer to
the sun than Earth so it can look outward and track approaching
asteroids for months, Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart,
chairman emeritus of B612, said during a conference call.
The technology exists to deflect an asteroid, provided it is
found in time, added former shuttle and space station astronaut
Ed Lu, the foundation's chairman and chief executive.
The goal is to have decades of notice, Lu told Reuters.
"I think it would be embarrassing if we were to be struck by
a major asteroid in the next few decades simply because we
didn't choose to do the mapping that's needed to find these
asteroids," he said.
Schweickart said it wasn't a question of if Earth will be
hit by an asteroid, but when.
The planet bears the scars of past events. An impact 65
million years ago is believed to have triggered a change in
Earth's climate that killed off dinosaurs and other life.
In 1908, an incoming asteroid or comet blasted apart over
Siberia, Russia, leveling 830 square miles (2,150 square
kilometers) of trees.
"You don't want to put off for some future date, if you can
make a difference now, something which relates directly to human
lives and public safety," Schweickart said. "That's why we've
taken the initiative."
During its planned 5 1/2 year mission, Sentinel should be
able to find 90 percent of near-Earth asteroids that are 460
feet (140 meters) in diameter or larger, and about 50 percent of
asteroids 130 feet (40 meters) in diameter.
In addition to looking out for potentially dangerous
asteroids, the information could be used for proposed asteroid
mining projects and by researchers.
The telescope will be built by Ball Aerospace and
operated by the University of Colorado's Laboratory for
Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, Colorado.
It is expected to be launched in 2017 or 2018 aboard a Space
Exploration Technologies' Falcon 9 rocket.