LOS ANGELES -- Who will protect us from a killer asteroid? A team of ex-NASA astronauts and scientists thinks it's up to them.

In a bold plan unveiled yesterday, the group wants to launch its own space telescope to spot and track small and mid-sized space rocks capable of wiping out a city or continent. With that information, they could sound early warnings if a rogue asteroid appeared headed toward our planet.

So far, the idea from the B612 Foundation is on paper only.

Such an effort would cost several hundred million dollars, and the group plans to start fundraising. Behind the nonprofit are a space shuttle astronaut, an Apollo 9 astronaut and a deep space mission manager, along with non-NASA types.

Asteroids are leftovers from the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Most reside in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter but some get nudged into Earth's neighborhood.

NASA and a network of astronomers routinely scan the skies for these near-Earth objects. And they've found 90 percent of the biggest threats -- asteroids at least two-thirds of a mile across that are considered major killers. Scientists believe it was a 6-mile-wide asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

But the group thinks more attention should be paid to the estimated half a million smaller asteroids, similar in size to one that exploded over Siberia in 1908 and leveled more than 800 square miles of forest.

"We're playing cosmic roulette. We're flying around the solar system with these other objects. The laws of probability eventually catch up to you," foundation chairman and former shuttle astronaut Ed Lu said.

Added former Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart: "The current priority really needs to be toward finding all of those asteroids which can do real damage if they hit or when they hit. It's not a matter of if; it's really a matter of when."

The Mountain View, Calif.-based B612 Foundation, named after the home asteroid of the Earth-visiting prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince," has shifted focus in the last year to seek out asteroids with a telescope. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., which developed NASA's Kepler telescope that hunts for exoplanets, has drawn up a preliminary telescope design.

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