NASA Is Calling All Nerds to Help Save the World

Want to be an asteroid hunter? The space agency wants your help.

National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
March 10, 2014, 9:58 a.m.

NASA needs a hand find­ing as­ter­oids that threaten our plan­et — so it’s turn­ing to crowd­sourcing.

The space agency an­nounced Monday it’s look­ing for data jock­eys to help it track as­ter­oids, in­clud­ing ones that could come close — in space dis­tances — to the Earth. At stake is not only the plan­et’s sur­viv­al, but $35,000 in re­ward money that NASA is put­ting up for As­ter­oid Grand Chal­lenge win­ners.

“The di­no­saurs would have cared if they knew about this prob­lem,” says the NASA video an­noun­cing the con­test. “So let’s be smarter than them.”

So what does NASA want from cit­izen sci­ent­ists? Bet­ter al­gorithms for identi­fy­ing as­ter­oids in the im­ages it picks up with its tele­scopes. The chal­lenge is to “in­crease the de­tec­tion sens­it­iv­ity, min­im­ize the num­ber of false pos­it­ives, ig­nore im­per­fec­tions in the data, and run ef­fect­ively on all com­puter sys­tems.”

Not only does NASA want help spot­ting as­ter­oids; it’s also look­ing for ideas on what to do if it spots a dan­ger­ous space rock hurt­ling to­ward Earth. The end goal: “Find all as­ter­oid threats to hu­man pop­u­la­tions and know what to do about them.”

NASA isn’t alone in the pro­ject. Plan­et­ary Re­sources, a com­pany that plans to mine metals from nearby as­ter­oids, is also back­ing the chal­lenge. “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,” said Chris Lewicki, the com­pany’s pres­id­ent.

The chal­lenge could also be a boon to NASA’s goal of re­dir­ect­ing and land­ing as­tro­nauts on an as­ter­oid next dec­ade.

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