NASA cancels contract with partners in asteroid-hunting project – report

Asteroid 243 Ida ©
NASA has terminated its 10-year contract with a company hoping to build a spacecraft that would hunt for Earth-threatening asteroids. NASA cited “limited resources” and an inability to further “reserve funds” for the $450 million mission.

The B612 Foundation – the company whose “interplanetary mission is to build a spacecraft that would track asteroids – signed what is called a Space Act Agreement (SAA) back in 2012.

Under the agreement with NASA, B612 would have been able to obtain NASA’s technical consultation and tracking facilities for Sentinel, if it had been launched. For its part, B612 would inform NASA on the spacecraft's findings and deliver data from the spacecraft to the Minor Planet Center.

Expected to last 10 years, the contract laid out a number of milestones that the foundation needed to meet.

NASA has confirmed to the website Space Policy Online that the contract has indeed been canceled. The space agency said that B612, which fully relies on philanthropic donations and crowdfunding, has failed to meet one of the “milestones” of the SAA – developing its asteroid-hunting spacecraft Sentinel.

The space agency’s spokesmen Dwayne Brown and Dave Steitz said that the decision was “due to limited resources” and that “NASA can no longer afford to reserve funds” for the project.

“NASA believes it is in the best interest of both parties to terminate this agreement but remains open to future opportunities to collaborate with the B612 Foundation,” Steitz told Space Policy Online.

The B612 – named after an asteroid in the well-known children’s story “The Little Prince” – has said that the development has not affect their determination to build Sentinel.

“[The] status of the SAA in no way changes the resolve of B612 Foundation to move forward. ... we will continue to work independently and together with NASA, the US Congress and others to see our goals realized,” B612 Vice President for Communications Diane Murphy said on behalf of CEO and former astronaut Ed Lu.

Murphy explained that their project is “dependent on our fundraising” and “taking longer than we first anticipated."

The Sentinel mission’s estimated cost is $450 million. The Foundation reportedly raised only $1.2 million in 2012 and $1.6 million in 2013.

Meanwhile, B612’s misfortune might be good news for another asteroid-tracking mission by the NEOCam team, headed by astronomer Amy Mainzer of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In the coming weeks, the California-based team should learn if it has been selected as one of three semifinalists – out of 16 other candidates - for funding from NASA’s Discovery program.

In 2005, US Congress passed a law requiring NASA to detect, track and characterize 90 percent of near-Earth asteroids larger than 459 feet (140 meters).

At the time, NASA chief Charles Bolden said the agency was unlikely to meet that deadline given its budget.

The threat of asteroids and meteors hitting Earth is not mere science fiction. In 2013, an aerial meteorite explosion wreaked havoc in Russia’s Urals. On a cold February morning, the meteorite, the “largest since Tunguska,” struck the city of Chelyabinsk.

There were no casualties, but about 1,600 people received minor injuries, mostly from fragments of shattered glass.