The private sector can’t always do it: B612 fundraising falls short

known NEOS ca.2007.Armagh observatory

Known NEOs ca. 2007. Credit: Armagh Observatory

Recent stories in Nature and New Scientist report that the B612 Foundation is nowhere near reaching its goal of soliciting sufficient funds to build and launch a space-based NEO survey telescope, called Sentinel.

The Sentinel mission web site offers no information on the estimated cost of this project. I’ve heard various estimates of the price tag for such a mission, ranging between $200 million and $500 million. (Disclosure: I work as a consultant to NASA’s NEO Observations Program. No one asked me to write this post.)

Jacob Aron reports in New Scientist (“Don’t fear apocalyptic asteroids: you’re safer than you think,” published online today) on B612’s Sentinel fundraising efforts to date. Traci Watson reports in Nature (“Private asteroid hunt lacks cash to spy threats in orbit,” Vol. 522, 25 June) that B612’s fundraising “progress has been slow.”

That’s putting it mildly. What concerns me more than the slow pace of fundraising, though, is how B612 has spent the money it’s raised thus far. If I were a donor, I would not be happy about it.

B612’s Form 990 reports to the Internal Revenue Service for 2011, 2012, and 2013 — public documents that are available here — indicate that most of the few million dollars the foundation has raised thus far has been spent on salaries for foundation president Ed Lu and chief operating officer Danica Remy, advertising and promotion, conferences and meetings, accounting and office expenses, and fundraising, leaving little to start building a telescope.

B612 is a player in International Asteroid Awareness Day, coming up on June 30. It would be interesting to know how much B612 has invested in this event. Somehow I doubt that after three years of expensive yet anemic fundraising efforts, suddenly Asteroid Day will prompt an outpouring of substantial donations to B612. Whatever might be raised could end up spent on the next big media event.

I blogged last year about how Asteroid Day seems designed, first, to publicize various special projects – a science fiction film about an asteroid impact disaster, a pricey astronomy festival, and B612’s Sentinel project, for instance — and, second, to “educate the public.” I remain convinced that Asteroid Day’s primary purpose is publicity, with “education” coming up second. (See, for example, Asteroid Day’s online “shop,” where you can buy tickets to see the sci-fi disaster film and T-shirts that advertise it. Period.)

B612 reported revenues of $89,515 for 2011 and expenses of $148,683, including $96,100 in “professional fees and other payments to independent contractors” and $52,583 in “other expenses.” (The 2011 Form 990 reports “gifts, grants, contributions and memberships received” of $43,450 for 2007, $37,793 for 2008, $1,565 for 2009, and $2,903 for 2012.)

For 2012, B612 reported $1.2 million in revenues and $1.1 million in expenses, including $75,000 for advertising and promotion, $86,000 for “conferences, conventions, and meetings,” $127,000 for consultants, $40,000 in compensation for Lu and $84,750 for Remy.

(For 2011 and 2012, B612 filed its IRS reports “c/o Silicon Valley Community Foundation.” I don’t know the relationship between the two organizations.)

For 2013, B612 reported $1.619 million in revenues and $1.556 million in expenses, including $240,000 in compensation for Lu, $204,279 in compensation for Remy, $271,277 in “other wages,” $527,880 for advertising and promotion, $134,986 for travel, $9,645 for conferences and meetings, and $22,426 for fundraising expenses. B612 reported net assets at the end of 2013 totaling $195,931.

If you’re interested in hearing from some of the people who are actually engaged in the day-to-day work of finding, tracking, and characterizing near-Earth asteroids, tune in to a panel discussion taking place from 12:15-1:15 pm EDT on June 30, to be webcast live from the 13th meeting of the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group. You can watch the webcast here: