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NASA Terminates Space Act Agreement with B612 Foundation for Sentinel Spacecraft

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Sep-2015
Updated: 30-Sep-2015 06:26 PM

NASA has terminated its unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) with the B612 Foundation.  The Foundation is trying to raise private funds to build a spacecraft, Sentinel, to hunt for asteroids.  B612 says that they are proceeding with their efforts uninterrupted despite the termination.

The B612 Foundation's goal is to "enhance our capability to protect Earth from asteroid impacts."   Its CEO, Ed Lu, and Chair Emeritus, Rusty Schweickert, are both former astronauts and have focused for many years on raising awareness of the threats posed to Earth by asteroids and trying to find solutions to address that threat.  One of the challenges is finding out where the Earth-threatening asteroids are and while NASA has ground-based programs to achieve that objective, B612 argues that only a spacecraft with infrared sensors in a "Venus-trailing" orbit would have the field of view necessary to really answer that question.

The B612 Foundation is named after the asteroid in the children's story The Little Prince.

NASA is not currently planning to build a dedicated asteroid-hunting spacecraft, although it did re-purpose its earth-orbiting Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE) satellite to focus on asteroid detection in 2013.  Launched in 2009, WISE was designed to image the entire sky in the infrared band using super-cooled detectors.  It completed its primary mission in September 2010 after exhausting the coolant and was decommissioned, but NASA later determined some of the instruments could still be useful in searching for asteroids.  Renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, NEOWISE, it began a three-year observation program in 2013. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is proposing NEOCam, another asteroid-hunting mission, as part of the the Discovery 14 selection process, though competition is stiff and it is far from clear whether it will be chosen as one of semi-finalists from among the 16 proposers, a decision expected soon.  It was also proposed in 2006 and 2010.

WISE/NEOWISE was built by Ball Aerospace, which is partnered with B612 on the Sentinel mission (and would also be the prime contractor for NEOCam if it is selected). 

B612 is trying to fund the Sentinel mission privately, using mostly philanthropic donations although anyone may contribute. 

The nonreimbursable NASA-B612 Foundation agreement was signed by NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier and Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld on May 31, 2012.  B612 CEO Ed Lu signed it on June 19, 2012 and was to be in effect for 10 years from that date.   Its primary purpose was obtaining NASA technical consulting and agreement for B612 to use NASA tracking facilities for Sentinel after it was launched.  In return, B612 would keep NASA informed of the spacecraft's technical characteristics and progress and deliver data from the spacecraft to the Minor Planet Center.  

The milestones identified in the agreement were:

  • Sentinel mission contract start date with Ball, November 2012
  • Preliminary design review, October 2013
  • Critical Design Review, October 2014
  • Launch, December 2016

NASA spokesmen Dwayne Brown and Dave Steitz confirmed via email that NASA terminated the agreement with B612.  Steitz explained that B612 had not met an important milestone in the SAA -- starting Sentinel's development -- and NASA therefore terminated the agreement because "due to limited resources, NASA can no longer afford to reserve funds" to support 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," he added.

B612 Vice President for Communications Diane Murphy also confirmed the termination, but said NASA had invited them to return to obtain another SAA when Sentinel's launch date is closer.   She noted that "our timeline is dependent on our fundraising -- and while that is going well - it is hard ... and taking longer than we first anticipated."   She provided a statement from Lu asserting that the "status of the SAA in no way changes the resolve of the 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."

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story said there would be three semi finalists in the Discovery selection, but there were five.  They were announced on September 30.  NEOCam is one of those five.



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