NASA asks citizen scientists to become ‘asteroid hunters’

In an effort to avoid a potential apocalypse, the space agency is holding a contest to get people to help it discover deadly asteroids.

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If dangerous asteroids are discovered, NASA may be able to plan asteroid-capturing expeditions. NASA/JPL Near-Earth Object Program Office

NASA is looking for citizen scientists to help save planet Earth.

The space agency announced Monday that it is launching an "Asteroid Data Hunter" contest series to reach out to people to help create algorithms to identify asteroids zooming around outer space. NASA will give away $35,000 in awards to competition winners.

Millions of asteroids are thought to be currently orbiting the sun and scientists want to be sure to identify as many of them as possible. Why? So humans don't go the way of the dinosaurs.

While NASA deemed Earth safe last year from a colossal asteroid that was slated to hit the planet in 2036, there have been other near misses and small-asteroid collisions over the past few years. A previously undetected 20-meter asteroid crashed into Russia last year with the force of 500,000 tons of TNT, which injured roughly 1,000 people.

"Current asteroid detection initiatives are only tracking one percent of the estimated objects that orbit the Sun," Planetary Resources president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki said in a statement. "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."

NASA's goal is to discover those unknown asteroids and then track and characterize them. For the contest, citizen scientists will be allowed to study images taken from ground-based telescopes to see if they can develop improved algorithms for identifying asteroids. If dangerous asteroids are found, NASA could determine if they'd be viable for a re-direction into a lunar orbit.

"Protecting the planet from the threat of asteroid impact means first knowing where they are," Prizes and Challenges Program executive Jenn Gustetic said in a statement. "By opening up the search for asteroids, we are harnessing the potential of innovators and makers and citizen scientists everywhere to help solve this global challenge."

NASA's contest kicks off on March 17 and will continue for the next six months.

About the author

Dara Kerr, a freelance journalist based in the Bay Area, is fascinated by robots, supercomputers and Internet memes. When not writing about technology and modernity, she likes to travel to far-off countries.

 

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