A nonprofit organization that many have looked at as our best chance to detect potentially Earth-destroying asteroids has just been dropped by NASA, apparently because it missed a series of deadlines the agency set up for it.
The B612 Foundation's mission is to launch Sentinel, an infrared space telescope that would trail Venus and point at Earth in order to detect potentially dangerous asteroids and meteors. Unlike many startup space projects (most of which are little more than pipe dreams), Sentinel is largely made up of former astronauts and space industry veterans, so many thought it would actually happen.
B612 had signed on the makers of the Hubble Space Telescope to develop Sentinel, tentatively had a SpaceX launch lined up, and signed an "unfunded Space Act Agreement" with NASA in 2012 that would have provided B612 with technical consulting and access to NASA tracking facilities for Sentinel.
Things are apparently not going well, however: Space Policy Online reported that NASA canceled the agreement because the foundation has not even started development of the Sentinel, which was originally supposed to launch in 2016 (that date had already been delayed twice, to 2019).
The foundation blamed crowdfunding issues for the missed deadlines, and it's unclear how much of the estimated $450 million it needs has already been raised.
"Our timeline is dependent on our fundraising—and while that is going well—it is hard," a spokesperson for B612 told Space Policy Online. It's "taking longer than we first anticipated."
NASA did not immediately respond to Motherboard's request for comment.
Though B612 says it will press forward with Sentinel, it's looking like the project is another piece of evidence that it's incredibly difficult to crowdfund space missions. It's also looking like planetary defense will continue to be an underfunded, disorganized plan.
Update: B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu emailed Motherboard the following statement:
Our goal since the beginning has been to protect the Earth from Asteroid Impacts. Asteroids like the one that struck in Tunguska (45 meters) are large enough to cause enormous damage, and the combination of Sentinel together with the currently under construction LSST will be able to spot in advance the great majority of asteroids larger than this should they be on a collision course with Earth. We will continue to push for Sentinel because of its critical capabilities, and are open to working with NASA for communications services at the appropriate time.
The status of the SAA in no way changes the resolve of the B612 Foundation to move forward. Funding for large private space projects has historically been difficult to predict, and Sentinel is no different. We have made strong technical progress in the past 3 years and will continue to work independently and together with NASA, the US Congress and others to move forward.