More “news” about near-Earth objects…?

Tomorrow the ex-astronaut-fueled B612 Foundation is holding a media event to officially announce its plans for financing, building, and lunching “Project Sentinel,” a space-based telescope designed to detect and track near-Earth asteroids.

As of today, B612’s website B612’s web site is “down,” as in not functioning (the home page says only “new site coming June 28th…”). I’ve emailed the media contact for B612 asking whether the event will be webcast for those who can’t attend, and those emails keep bouncing back with the message, “Google tried to deliver your message, but it was rejected by the recipient domain” – which is (June 28 8 am update: new B612 web site is up and running, press kit and all.)

(Full disclosure: one of the reasons why I’m interested in this event is that I’m doing some science communication research for NASA’s Near Earth Object Program – possibly unique at NASA, as a program that has a bigger budget than it asked for… The President’s fiscal year 2012 budget request for NASA quadrupled the NEO program’s annual budget from an about $4 million per year to $20.4 million, to “improve and increase its efforts to detect Earth approaching asteroids and comets that may provide resources for our exploration of the solar system, or could become potential impact hazards to the Earth [and] expand efforts to characterize their nature, both to better understand their composition and provide information for study of potential hazard mitigation techniques.”)

What I hope to learn tomorrow – most likely second-hand, it appears – is, among other things, how much money B612 has raised thus far, how it intends to raise the full amount it needs, what it is getting from NASA under its Space Act agreement, and what NASA gets in return. What I expect to hear, based on the track record of B612’s principals thus far, is a lot of scary rhetoric about the impending destruction of Earth.

In a related development, ex-NASA astronauts and B612 Foundation principals Rusty Schweickart (in person) and Ed Lu (by telecon), participated in a workshop convened by NASA’s NEO program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center last month to discuss potentially hazardous asteroids, focusing on an asteroid named 2011 AG5 and options for deflecting 2011 AG5 if necessary.

I participated in that workshop. A list of workshop participants is posted on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s NEO web site, along with a “consensus summary for the Goddard workshop” highlighting our findings. We completed that summary of findings before we left the workshop, and all participants agreed upon it. That is, there is no “minority report” – at least as far as I know. Also online are the JPL NEO group’s “report on Asteroid 2011 AG5 Hazard Assessment and Contingency Planning.”

The JPL report is excruciatingly detailed. The executive summary of the report is easier to read and captures the gist of things.

If you’re interested in the history of NASA’s NEO program, you can check out this slide show.

So B612 says it’s going to raise private-sector funding for a NEO detection and tracking telescope mission. At the same time, Planetary Resources, headed by long-time space-exploitation advocate Peter Diamandis, claims it, too, is raising private-sector financing, via the crowd-sourcing outfit Kickstarter, to build a NEO detection and tracking telescope.

The NEO world is a small world. Certainly B612 and Planetary Resources principals are talking with each other. Are they pursuing two separate and similar projects? Is there some other plan in the works? Stay tuned….

Putting on my social scientist hat, I see a strong ideological slant to the public discourse about NEOs.  Embedded in the public rhetoric of B612 and Planetary Resources, and in (mostly unquestioning) media coverage of these outfits and their plans, is the belief that it’s human “destiny” to colonize space and that that it’s “America’s” destiny to explore and exploit the space “frontier” (manifest destiny), the belief that the USA must be THE leader in space (exceptionalism – White House Science Advisor John Holdren reiterated this belief reiterated this belief just last week), the (libertarian) belief that government should get out of the way and let the private sector explore and exploit space – though government subsidies are okay as long as we don’t call them that, and the belief that the solar system is ours to plunder (my word) because it’s there (economic neoliberalism, capitalism at its worst…).