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NASA cuts ties with organization aimed at protecting Earth from asteroids

NASA is parting ways with the B612 Foundation — the organization hoping to build a spacecraft to hunt down Earth-destroying asteroids, SpacePolicyOnline reports. NASA had a Space Act Agreement with the foundation to help develop the vehicle without giving out any money. But now NASA has terminated the agreement as the B612 Foundation hasn't even started development on their spacecraft — an important milestone laid out in the contract.

The B612 Foundation is a US-based non-profit run by former astronauts Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart. The main initiative of the organization is the Sentinel Mission; it entails launching a space telescope into a Venus-like orbit around the Sun. The Sentinel would use an infrared lens to detect all Near-Earth Asteroids, or NEAs, that are more than 450 feet across. The B612 Foundation claims that after six and a half years in orbit, the Sentinel Telescope will have mapped nearly 98 percent of all known NEAs. This will allow us to know if any are headed toward Earth — giving us ample time to prepare deflection strategies, according to the foundation.

B612 Foundation hasn't even started development on their spacecraft

The B612 Foundation boasts an impressive team of engineers, including personnel from Ball Aerospace who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope and the Kepler Mission. NASA got on board in 2012, when it signed its Space Act Agreement with the organization. The contract, originally meant to last 10 years, laid out a number of milestones that the foundation needed to meet. These included a critical design review for the Sentinel Mission in October 2014, with a planned launch scheduled for December 2016. However, those dates have been pushed back, with a launch tentatively scheduled for sometime in 2017 or 2018.

The delays are likely the result of slow fundraising. The B612 Foundation is relying on crowdfunding and private donations to shoulder the cost of the mission, which is estimated to be $450 million. Yet the organization only raised $1.2 million in 2012 and $1.6 million in 2013.

"Due to limited resources, NASA can no longer afford to reserve funds" to help out the endeavor, SpacePolicyOnline reported. In an email to Motherboard, B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu said they are still moving forward with the Sentinel Mission despite the contract termination:

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.

NASA says it's open to signing another Space Act Agreement with the B612 Foundation in the future.