I’ve been hoping that SpaceX’s successful commercial launch would lead to an awesome future involving the privatization of outer space, and it looks like it’s already leading to some cool new stuff. The non-profit B612 Foundation has announced plans to launch a telescope that will scan for asteroids in our solar system and assess their potential threats to Earth.
NASA is already cataloging thousands of near-earth asteroids for this purpose, but the B612 Foundation wants to send a telescope into orbit around the sun, allowing it to scan a much larger area than NASA can from Earth.
“NASA has started it already, but 98 or 99 percent of the territory that crosses Earth’s orbit is unmapped. We said, You know what, rather than try to convince the government to do this, why don’t we do it? And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Recent technological advances – including SpaceX’s contribution to lowering launch costs – are making this possible:
“It has only been possible for a few years, and ten years ago it wouldn’t have been possible for even a government to do it. But computing power on spacecraft has gotten much better, and to track half a million objects, you need to do lots of computations on board,” Lu said.
“Also, infrared detectors have advanced greatly in the past two years and, with the availability of radically less expensive launchers, like SpaceX, it was a perfect storm.”
Apparently they think they can “deploy such a telescope entirely with private funds” for just a few hundred million dollars – although it’s not supposed to happen until 2017 or 2018, which leaves room for plenty of time and cost delays. But for now we can hope for the best.
A few years ago I would have had doubts that individuals had the resources to do outer space stuff that had previously been limited to governments. That conception is being shattered at increasingly remarkable levels. It’s already started with corporations, but now even non-profit organizations are beginning to realize they can get involved in outer space to contribute to public goods like better information about asteroid paths.
This also gives me hope about other human needs related to outer space. A few months ago Popular Mechanics did a piece on the threat of solar storms. One concern was that, with strained government budgets on aging government resources, we were losing our access to reliable tracking of the sun’s activity:
Initial notifications come from a network of ground-based solar observatories operated by the U.S. Air Force, as well as a NOAA satellite network that watches for the telltale x-ray pulses that signal solar flares. But these early warnings cannot reveal whether a radiation storm or a CME is actually headed toward Earth. For that, forecasters rely on only a few satellites…
Disturbingly, SOHO and ACE are both well past their nominal lifetimes, with no certain replacements… Lubchenco and other experts unanimously believe allowing ACE’s unique observational capabilities to expire without a replacement would constitute a blind spot too large and risky to ignore. And, in fact, a spacecraft that could replace ACE currently sits in ignominious storage at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, is fully assembled and all but ready for launch. Its backers simply lacked the funding to buy a rocket ride into space.
Maybe SpaceX or other companies with future launch technologies will help provide affordable launches for DSCOVR and other future satellites, making it cheaper and easier to monitor coronal mass ejections from the sun. That’s just one of the many possibilities that await us in the exciting future of outer space.
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