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Venture seeks ways to monitor asteroids

By Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON - 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 of Earth on Friday, closer than the moon and many orbiting satellites. Half the size of a football field, it is 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 the nonprofit B612, which 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; 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."

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 email. "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 or hit with lasers to gassify some of the rock and change its course, 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."


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