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Tag an Asteroid, Win a Prize

The Earth and 2004 MN4 on December 23, 2004. Image credit: NASA/JPLThe Planetary Society is offering a $50,000 prize for the best plan to reach out an put a tracking beacon on near-Earth asteroid Apophis (AKA 2004 MN4). Apophis is approximately 400 metres across, and it’s expected to pass very close to the Earth in 2029. And on that pass, it could receive a gravitational bump to its orbit that could make it even more dangerous in 2036. With better tracking, scientists will have a much better idea if Apophis really is a risk to Earth. The competition ends August 31, 2007.

Today at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, The Planetary Society announced the launch of their Apophis Mission Design Competition, which invites participants to submit designs for a mission to rendezvous with and “tag” a potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroid. Tagging may be necessary to track an asteroid accurately enough to determine whether it will impact Earth, and thus help facilitate the decision whether to mount a deflection mission to alter its orbit. The Planetary Society is offering $50,000 in prize money for the competition.

Apophis is an approximately 400 meter near-Earth object (NEO), which will come closer to Earth in 2029 than the orbit of our geostationary satellites. On that pass, the asteroid will be gravitationally perturbed to an unknown orbit, one that could cause it to hit Earth in 2036.

“While the odds are very slim that this particular asteroid will hit Earth in 30 years, they are not zero, and Apophis and other NEOs represent threats that need to be addressed,” said Rusty Schweickart, Apollo astronaut, head of the Association for Space Explorers NEO committee.

Bruce Betts, The Planetary Society’s Director of Projects said, “With this competition, we hope not only to generate creative thinking about tagging Apophis, but also to stimulate greater awareness of the broader near-Earth object threat.”

Very precise tracking may be needed to determine the probability of a collision in 2036. Such precise tracking may require “tagging” the asteroid, perhaps with a beacon — a transponder or reflector — or some other method. Exactly how an asteroid could best be tagged is not yet known, nor is it obvious. “Learning how to do this is the point of the competition,” added Betts.

The Planetary Society is “betting” $50,000 that someone will devise an innovative solution to the problem. The prize money was contributed and competition made possible by Dan Geraci, a member of The Planetary Society Board of Directors, together with donations from Planetary Society members around the world. Geraci stated, “The time scale may be unknown, but the danger of a near-Earth object impact is very real. We need to spur the space community and indeed all people into thinking about technical solutions.”

The Planetary Society is conducting this competition in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). The Society will present the winning entries to the world’s major space agencies, and the findings of the competition will be presented at relevant scientific and engineering conferences.

If Apophis passes through a several hundred-meter wide “keyhole” in 2029, it will impact Earth in 2036. While current estimates rate the probability of impact as very low, Apophis is being used as an example to enable design of a broader type of mission to any potentially dangerous asteroid.

The competition design scenario asks participants to imagine that Earth-based observations of Apophis made over the coming years are not sufficient to know whether the asteroid will or will not pass through the 2029 keyhole, and that a better orbit determination is needed to know if a deflection mission is required. The competition requires that the tagging mission be designed to return information fast enough so that by the year 2017 space agencies could determine whether they need to send a mission to deflect the asteroid from the keyhole.

See Apophis Competition rules.

Teams or individuals intending to submit a proposal should submit a Notice of Intent to Propose by March 1, 2007. The deadline for proposals is August 31, 2007.

The Apophis Mission Design Competition is open to anyone from any country. Proposals may be submitted by individuals or teams. The competition is open to teams from academia and industry as well as student and private groups, and to government groups or individuals not using government salaries to support their participation in the Contest (see rules for details).

$50,000 in prize money will be awarded. The judges will determine how to distribute the award money among one or more prize winners. At least $25,000 will be awarded to the first prize winner. At least $5,000 is reserved for the best submission received from a student team (who is not precluded from winning the first prize), in which all substantive work was performed by current students (high school, undergraduate, or graduate), with no more than two faculty advisors. Remaining prize money may be distributed as honorable mention awards.

Additionally, the first prize winner, or one member of the first prize winning team, will receive award travel, including transportation, food, and lodging, to attend a future major science or engineering conference to present their results.

The Apophis Mission Design Competition Committee includes Bruce Betts, Director of Projects, The Planetary Society; Daniel Durda, Planetary Scientist, Southwest Research Institute; Louis Friedman, Executive Director, The Planetary Society; Lewis Peach, Chief Engineer, USRA; Russell “Rusty” Schweickart, Apollo astronaut and Association of Space Explorers NEO Committee Chairman; and Simon “Pete” Worden, Director, NASA Ames Research Center.
Since The Planetary Society’s inception in 1980, the organization has donated well over a quarter million dollars to asteroid research, about half of which was awarded through Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants to amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers around the world.

Original Source: Planetary Society News Release

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Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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