NASA Needs Help Hunting Asteroids

NASANASA is looking to citizen scientists for help hunting and tracking millions of asteroids. This initiative, one of many recent efforts to recruit public help to tackle scientific challenges, is part of a partnership between the space agency and Planetary Resources.  This asteroid hunt is just the latest in a string of citizen science initiatives around the country.

Citizen science is just what it sounds like – everyday people help with scientific research. People have long been helping out with scientific research in various ways. The development of on-line tools has made citizen science easier than ever. Data analysis is no doubt sped up by the availability of cheap and powerful personal computers as well.

NASA is looking for programmers who can help them find asteroids. The space agency specifically wants a program that can efficiently find asteroids. The Asteroid Data Hunter contest for would-be asteroid hunters begins March 17 and carries a $25,000 first prize, plus $10,000 in additional awards. The contest runs through August.

Officials offered three selection criteria. The winning programs must minimize false positives, asteroids that aren’t really there, improve sensitivity, and run on all computer systems.

The contest is driven in part by a need to find asteroids that might hit the Earth. Jenn Gustetic, NASA Prizes and Challenges Program executive, stated that we need to know where these asteroids are before we can deal with any threats.

The current contest is to be the first of a series. NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, a program announced in 2013, focuses on locating potentially dangerous space rocks and figuring out how to protect earth from them. The point of the Grand Challenge is to recruit the public’s help in hunting and tracking asteroids.

Planetary Resources president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki issued a statement that help explain the company’s involvement in this program. His statement noted that only about one percent of all the estimated objects in the solar system are being tracked. The contest offers a way to change that. “We are excited to partner with NASA in this contest to help increase the quantity and knowledge about asteroids that are potential threats, human destinations or resource rich,” Lewicki wrote.

The asteroid hunt is not NASA’s first or only time engaging with citizen scientists. The moon crater test is preceded in time by a couple of years. Planet Hunters is a NASA project to enlist the public’s help in the hunt for extrasolar planets. Anyone with an interest in planet hunting could access data from the Kepler Space Telescope and search for signs of planets orbiting other stars.

A recent test carried out by NASA and CosmoQuest, a citizen science website, used volunteers to count and tag craters on the moon. Researchers wanted to know if amateurs could do this job as well as scientists. Given the huge number of potential volunteers, a good result from the test would lead to much faster identification of craters.

Earth’s moon isn’t the only potential object of crowd sourced analysis. Much of mercury and a large asteroid called Vesta could be studied and mapped by amateur volunteers.

Citizen scientists don’t need a PhD to do research.  For this crater counting effort interested volunteers just need to watch a video tutorial and then start counting.  Other opportunities only require a fast PC with some processing capacity to spare.

NASA is not the first to crowd source at least some aspects of space science. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project asked for volunteers to help screen data for the tell-tale signs of a radio signal transmitted by an alien civilization.

The Asteroid Data Hunter contest marks the beginning of a new strategy for NASA to recruit help in hunting asteroids, and doing other laborious research work.

By Chester Davis


IEEE Spectrum


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