With nothing less at stake than the future of planet Earth, NASA has decided to crowdsource ideas to detect and track asteroids that have the potential to wipe out life as we know it.
After a previously undetected, 65-foot-wide asteroid exploded over Russia in February 2013, unleashing the force of 500,000 tons of TNT, NASA launched a series of contests for smart folks to come up with ways to keep an eye on asteroids that could threaten Earth. Currently, NASA estimates that 1 percent of the millions of asteroids hurtling around our solar system have been found. So NASA calls the series of contests that make up the Asteroid Grand Challenge “a broad call to action” to defend Earth against any number of asteroids that could be bearing down on us.
“Good ideas can come from anywhere,” said Ben Burress, staff astronomer at Oakland’s Chabot Space & Science Center, which is not affiliated with NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. “There are millions of asteroids we don’t know about, so the idea of more information really is better. Are we going to be hit? Yes. The question is, when and by how big of an asteroid?”
In a video announcing the contests, a narrator says, “Asteroid hunting is an activity everyone can get involved with, whether it’s writing computer code, building hardware, making observations through a telescope. Survival is its own reward. It’s up to each of us to protect our planet from asteroids.
“The dinosaurs would have cared if they knew about this problem.”
With NASA out of the business of launching humans into space, “Earth’s defense,” as NASA calls it, is left in the hands of mere mortals. NASA first invited what it calls “citizen scientists” to join the search in March at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
NASA recently ended the third contest of its competition to create an algorithm to detect hidden asteroids. No fewer than 422 people from 63 countries — from Argentina to Zimbabwe — submitted algorithmic solutions. In all, NASA plans to award $35,000 this year to people who can figure out how to identify hidden asteroids.
NASA hopes to receive algorithms that will enable it to find and track asteroids, identify their size and shape and whether they represent threats to Earth — then come up with ways to prevent them from hitting and wiping out plants, animals and humans. “This is a big global problem that needs everybody to solve,” NASA spokeswoman Sarah Ramsey said. “We can’t do it alone.”
Asked how long the entire challenge will last, Ramsey said, “Until the problem’s solved.”