NASA Offers $35,000 In Prizes For Citizen Scientists To Help Find Asteroids

Fancy yourself an asteroid hunter? There’s $35,000 available in prizes for NASA’s new Asteroid Data Hunter contest series, which will be awarded to citizen scientists who develop algorithms that could be used to search for asteroids.

Here’s where you can apply for the contest, which opens March 17 and runs through August. And we have a few more details about this joint venture with Planetary Resources Inc. below.

“The Asteroid Data Hunter contest series challenges participants to develop significantly improved algorithms to identify asteroids in images captured by ground-based telescopes,” NASA stated. “The winning solution must increase the detection sensitivity, minimize the number of false positives, ignore imperfections in the data, and run effectively on all computer systems.”

We got a sharp reminder of the danger of asteroids to Earth in February 2013 when a meteor slammed into the atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia, causing damage and hundreds of injuries. Meanwhile, NASA is working on a project to redirect an asteroid closer to Earth for astronauts to explore, a concept that has funding allocated in their 2015 budget request to Congress.

In November, NASA announced that Planetary Resources (the company best known for the “selfie” space telescope) is going to work on “crowdsourced software solutions” with NASA-funded data to make it easier to find asteroids and other near-Earth objects.

Near-Earth Asteroid 2003 DZ15 to Pass Earth Monday Night

The Earth will get another close shave Monday, when the 152 metre asteroid 2003 DZ15 makes a pass by our fair planet on the night of July 29th/30th at 3.5 million kilometres distant.  This is over 9 times the Earth-Moon distance and poses no threat to our world.

This is much smaller than 2.75 kilometre 1998 QE2, which sailed by (bad pun intended) our fair world at 5.8 million kilometres distant on May 31st, 2013. The Virtual Telescope Project will be presenting a free online event to monitor the passage of NEA 2003 DZ15 starting Monday night July 29th at 22:00 UT/6:00 PM EDT.

As of this writing, no efforts are currently known of by professional observatories to monitor its passage via radar, though Arecibo may attempt to ping 2003 DZ15 on Thursday.

An Apollo asteroid, 2003 DZ15 was confirmed by the Lowell Observatory and NEAT’s Mount Palomar telescope upon discovery in February 2003. This is its closest approach to the Earth for this century, although it will make a pass nearly as close to the Earth in 2057 on February 12th.

With a perihelion (closest approach to the Sun of) 0.63 A.U.s, 2003 DZ15 can also make close passes by the planet Venus as well, which it last did in 1988 and will do again on 2056.

Closest approach of 2003 DZ15 is set for 00:37 UT July 30th, or 8:37 PM EDT the evening of Monday, July 29th. Although it will only reach about +14th magnitude (based on an absolute magnitude of +22.2), and hence be out of range to all but the very largest Earthbound backyard telescopes, it’ll be fun to watch as it slowly drifts across the starry background live on the internet. Our own, “is worth tracking down from our own backyard” limit is an asteroid passing closer than our Moon, or is farther, but is brighter than +10th magnitude… such are the limitations of humid Florida skies!

Of course, an asteroid the size of 2003 DZ15 would spell a bad day for the Earth, were it headed our way. At an estimated 152 metres in size, 2003 DZ is over seven times the size of the Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded over Russia the day after Valentine ’s on February 15th of this year. While not in the class of an Extinction Level event, 2003 DZ15 would be in 60 to 190 metre size of range of the Tunguska impactor that struck Siberia in 1908.

All enough for us to take notice as 2003 DZ15 whizzes by, at a safe distance this time. NASA plans to launch a crewed mission sometime over the next decade to study an asteroid, and  perhaps retrieve a small NEA and place it in orbit about Earth’s Moon. Such efforts may go a long way in understanding and dealing with such potentially hazardous space rocks, when and if the “big one” is discovered heading our way. We’re the Earth’s first line of defense- and unlike the ill-fated dinosaurs, WE’VE got a space program and can do something about it!

NASA Explains Their New Asteroid Retrieval Mission

NASA’s FY2014 budget proposal includes a plan to robotically capture a small near-Earth asteroid and redirect it safely to a stable orbit in the Earth-moon system where astronauts can visit and explore it. A spacecraft would capture an asteroid — which hasn’t been chosen yet, but would be about 7 meters (25 feet) wide — in 2019. Then using an Orion space capsule, a crew of about four astronauts would station-keep with the space rock in 2021 to allow for EVAs for exploration.

NASA has released new images, a video and more information about the mission.

They say that performing all the elements for the proposed asteroid initiative “integrates the best of NASA’s science, technology and human exploration capabilities and draws on the innovation of America’s brightest scientists and engineers.” The mission will combine existing technology along with capabilities being developed to find both large asteroids that pose a hazard to Earth and small asteroids that could be candidates for the proposed mission. NASA says this initiative will help accelerate technology development activities in high-powered solar electric propulsion and take advantage the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft currently being built, “helping to keep NASA on target to reach the President’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.”

Here’s more of NASA’s info:

When astronauts don their spacesuits and venture out for a spacewalk on the surface of an asteroid, how they move and take samples of it will be based on years of knowledge built by NASA scientists and engineers who have assembled and operated the International Space Station, evaluated exploration mission concepts, sent scientific spacecraft to characterize near-Earth objects and performed ground-based analog missions.

As early as the 1970s, NASA examined potential ways to use existing hardware to visit an asteroid to understand better its characteristics. On the International Space Station, scientific investigations and technology demonstrations are improving knowledge of how humans can live and work in space. The agency also has examined many possible mission concepts to help define what capabilities are needed to push the boundaries of space exploration.

During the early space shuttle flights and through assembly of the space station, NASA has relied on testing both in space and on Earth to try out ideas through a host of analog missions, or field tests, that simulate the complexity of endeavors in space.

Concept of Spacecraft with Asteroid Capture Mechanism Deployed. Credit: NASA.
Concept of Spacecraft with Asteroid Capture Mechanism Deployed. Credit: NASA.

Through 16 missions in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s underwater Aquarius Reef Base off the coast of Key Largo, Fla., aquanauts have tested techniques for human space exploration. These underwater tests have been built upon the experience gained by training astronauts in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to assemble and maintain the space station. The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 15 and 16 missions in 2011 and 2012, respectively, simulated several challenges explorers will face when visiting an asteroid, including how to anchor to and move around the surface of a near-Earth object and how to collect samples of it.

NASA also has simulated an asteroid mission as part of its 2012 Research and Technology Studies ground test at Johnson. During the simulation, a team evaluated how astronauts might do a spacewalk on an asteroid and accomplish other goals. While performing a spacewalk on a captured asteroid will involve different techniques than the activities performed during recent analog exercises, decisions made about ways to best sample an asteroid will be informed by the agency’s on-going concept development and past work.

Artist's Concept of a Solar Electric Propulsion System. Credit: NASA.
Artist’s Concept of a Solar Electric Propulsion System. Credit: NASA.

Scientific missions also have investigated the nature of asteroids to provide a glimpse of the origins of the solar system. From the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which in 1972 was the first to venture into the Main Asteroid Belt, to the Dawn mission, which recently concluded its investigations of asteroid Vesta and is on its way to the dwarf planet Ceres, NASA’s forays help us understand the origins of the solar system and inform decisions about how to conduct missions to distant planetary bodies. Scientists both at NASA and across the world also continue to study asteroids to shed light on their unique characteristics.

As NASA ventures farther into the solar system, the agency continues to simulate and evaluate operations and technical concepts for visiting an asteroid.

Source: NASA

Design for a Long Duration, Deep Space Mission Habitat

Caption: The integrated vehicle stack for a deep space human mission concept. Credit: NASA

There are all sorts of details to take into consideration when traveling in deep space, such as where to go, what to do, and how to get back.  Since starry-eyed dreamers often don’t take into account the practical realities of putting a human into such an environment, steely-eyed engineers are left to decide the gritty details of such a mission, such as how many pairs of socks are needed.  Fortunately, NASA employs engineers who are both steely-eyed and starry-eyed, and their work has just produced an interesting report discussing the human side of deep-space exploration.

The paper, written by Michelle Rucker and Shelby Thompson of Johnson Space Center, focuses on the requirements of a ship that will take the first wave of deep-space human explorers to a near Earth asteroid (NEA), hopefully in the near future.  The team stressed that they were only looking at very basic requirements and the paper only provides a basis to work from for more specialized teams that will design individual sub-systems.

To develop the basics, the team had to make some assumptions, and these assumptions are revealing for anyone interested in NASA’s future human exploration plans.  The team assumed a 380 day round-trip mission to a NEA, crewed by 4 people, with just 30 days of the mission spent at the asteroid.  They assumed the availability of a variety of mission-specific vehicles as well as the ability to perform extra-vehicular activities and dock with the Orion crew module, still under development at NASA.  Nevertheless, such assumptions could lead to an exciting mission if they hold throughout the design process.

Caption: Two weeks worth of clothing in a crew transport bag. Credit: NASA

In addition to the assumptions, the team took advantage of knowledge gained from years of working on the International Space Station, and helped in considering details like how many packets of powdered drinks are needed for the duration of the trip as well as how much toothpaste a person uses daily in space.  All of these numbers were crunched to derive overall dimensions for the craft.

Although, the sum of these volumes produced an over-sized spacecraft, the team evaluated activity frequency and duration to identify functions that could share a common volume without conflict, reducing the total volume by 24%. After adding 10% for growth, the resulting functional pressurized volume was calculated to be a minimum of 268 cu m (9,464 cu ft) distributed over the functions.

Those dimensions resulted in a 4 story structure totaling almost 280 cubic meters (10,000 cubic feet) of pressurized space that looks like it could have come right off the set of Prometheus.

Caption: Conceptual Deep Space Habitat layout. Credit: NASA/Michelle Rucker and Shelby Thompson.

The various subsystems can be broken into seven different categories.   The largest is the equipment section, which takes up 22% of the spacecraft.  This space would include things like the environmental control panel and navigation and communications equipment.  However, the designers thought that the propulsion system, most likely a solar electric propulsion system, and all required control equipment would be part of an attachable module and would not make up part of the main living space of the habitat.

Mission Operations and Spacecraft Operations make up the next largest chunks of the habitable space, each clocking in at 20%.  These areas are reserved for mission specific tasks that are not yet defined and general tasks that are necessary no matter what type of mission the habitat is launched on, such as basic maintenance and repair.

Much consideration was given to the psychological and privacy needs of the inhabitants of the ship and as such about 30% of the total habitable space is devoted to the care of the people on board, with 18% going to “individual” care and 12% going to “group” care.

Caption: Group living and operations area of a conceptual deep space habitat module. Credit: NASA/Michelle Rucker and Shelby Thompson.

Individual care includes basics such as beds, full body cleansing and toilets.  Group care is more for multi-person activities, such as a dining hall, food prep and meeting areas.  The last 2% of the area on board was allotted to “contingency” planning.  It fits its namesake well, as the design team hopes never to have to use the space whose primary purpose is to deal with cabin depressurization, crew fatality or other unforeseeable disaster.  There is also a shielded area in the interior of the habitat for refuge for the crew during a solar radiation event.

With the basics laid out, it is now up to the specialist teams to develop the next set of requirements for the sub-systems.  The final design will only be completed after a long and iterative process of calculation and re-calculation, design and re-design.  Assuming the teams persevere, and the space agency receives adequate funding for developing a deep space mission to an asteroid, NASA’s detail-oriented engineers will have developed a very flexible habitat module to use on the next step of human space exploration that dreamers everywhere can get excited about.

Source: NASA Technical Report: Developing a Habitat for Long Duration, Deep Space Mission

Andy Tomaswick, an electrical engineer who follows space science and technology.