Astronomers Want Your Help to Identify Risky Asteroids

Catalina Sky Survey 60-inch telescope
The Catalina Sky Survey 60-inch telescope observes the cosmos from Mount Lemmon in Arizona. (Credit: Catalina Sky Survey)

You, too, can be an asteroid hunter — thanks to a citizen-science project launched by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. And you might even get a scientific citation.

The project is enlisting human spotters to verify potential detections of space rocks moving through the field of view of the Catalina Sky Survey’s telescopes. The NASA-funded survey is charged with keeping track of more than a million asteroids, with a principal goal of identifying near-Earth objects that could pose a risk to our planet.

More than 14,400 near-Earth objects, or NEOs, have been discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey during the past 30 years, including 1,200 that were identified just in the past year. That adds up to nearly half of the known NEO population.

The problem is, astronomers know there are still lots of unknown asteroids out there — too many for them to spot without an assist from amateurs. “We take so many images of the sky each night that we cannot possibly look through all of our potential real asteroids,” Carson Fuls, a science engineering specialist for the Catalina Sky Survey, said in a NASA news release. That’s where the Daily Minor Planet can make a difference.

Continue reading “Astronomers Want Your Help to Identify Risky Asteroids”

NASA and HeroX are Crowdsourcing the Search for Life on Mars

This low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin." The MAHLI camera on Curiosity's robotic arm took multiple images on Aug. 5, 2015, that were stitched together into this selfie. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

For almost sixty years, robotic missions have been exploring the surface of Mars in search of potential evidence of life. More robotic missions will join in this search in the next fifteen years, the first sample return from Mars (courtesy of the Perseverance rover) will arrive here at Earth, and crewed missions will be sent there. Like their predecessors, these missions will rely on mass spectrometry to analyze samples of the Martian sands to look for potential signs of past life.

Given how much data we can expect from these missions, NASA is looking for new methods to analyze geological samples. To this end, NASA has partnered with the global crowdsourcing platform HeroX and the data-science company DrivenData to launch the Mars Spectrometry: Detect Evidence for Past Life challenge. With a prize purse of $30,000, this Challenge seeks innovative methods that rely on machine learning to automatically analyze Martian geological samples for potential signs of past life.

Continue reading “NASA and HeroX are Crowdsourcing the Search for Life on Mars”

NASA is Looking for Ideas on How to Jump-Start a Lunar Economy!

Credit: NTL/HeroX

In less than four years, NASA intends to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon as part of Project Artemis. This will be the first crewed mission to the lunar surface since Apollo 17, the last mission of the Apollo Program, in 1972. It’s also the culmination of decades of planning, research, development, and robotic missions that helped pave the way. And all along NASA has been clear what their overall goal is:

“We’re going back to the Moon! And this time, we’re going to stay!”

In addition to sending astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2024, NASA also plans to establish infrastructure by the end of the decade that will allow for a “sustainable lunar exploration” program. To achieve this, NASA and HeroX have launched the NASA Lunar Delivery Challenge, which will award $25,000 in prizes to teams who can design systems capable of handling payloads that will be delivered to the lunar surface.

Continue reading “NASA is Looking for Ideas on How to Jump-Start a Lunar Economy!”

Follow-Up on Skydiving Meteorite: Crowdsourcing Concludes it Was Just a Rock

A multiple frame picture of the rock falling, taken from a video taken during a skydive in 2012. Credit and copyright: Anders Helstrup, used by permission.

For all those involved with the initial investigation of the skydiver and the possible meteorite, they now feel they have resolution to their puzzle, thanks to the beauty of crowdsourcing. The rock that showed up in a video taken during a skydive in Norway in 2012 was likely just a rock — accidentally packed in the parachute — and not a meteoroid.

Steinar Midtskogen, from the Norwegian Meteor Network who was involved in the initial investigation of the video, suggested an adaptation of Linus’s Law to explain what has happened in the past week: “Given enough eyeballs, all mysteries are shallow.”

With all the comments, opinions and analysis following the release of the video last week, the team of scientists and video experts from Norway have conceded that the likelihood of the rock being a meteoroid is extremely low. After nearly two years of analyzing the video, the Norwegian team was unable to fully resolve the puzzle, and so they went public, hoping to get input from others.

“We were left with scenarios that we were unable to find possible solutions for against something that fits but is extremely improbable, though possible,” Midtskogen wrote on the NMN website. “We seemed to get no further, and we decided to go public with what we had and at the same time invite anyone to have a go at the puzzle. … We expressed our hope that it would go viral and scrutinized for something that we might have missed, and the result was beyond our expectations.”

The group welcomed all the input (and criticism) but were especially swayed by the ballistics analysis provided by NASA planetary scientist Dr. Phil Metzger, who posted his investigation on Facebook:

Here is my conclusion: the ballistics are consistent with it being a small piece of gravel that came out of his parachute pack and flew past at close distance. The ballistics are also consistent with it being a large meteorite that flew past at about 12 to 18 meters distance. It could be either one, but IMO not anything in between. Based on the odds of parachute packing debris (common) versus meteorite personal flybys (extremely rare), and based on the timing (right after he opened his parachute), I vote for the parachute debris as the more likely.

His three plots are below:

Ballistics analysis from Dr. Phil Metzger: The first one shows how the measured and predicted velocity agree only at the two different distances mentioned above. The second assumes it was parachute debris, and shows the velocity of the debris as a function of time after being released from his pack. the third shows the separation between the skydiver and the debris as a function of time. Note that the debris passes the skydiver at 12 seconds after the debris was released, which is the same amount of time in the video from when the drogue chute was opened until the debris passed the skydiver.
Ballistics analysis from Dr. Phil Metzger: The first one shows how the measured and predicted velocity agree only at the two different distances mentioned above. The second assumes it was parachute debris, and shows the velocity of the debris as a function of time after being released from his pack. the third shows the separation between the skydiver and the debris as a function of time. Note that the debris passes the skydiver at 12 seconds after the debris was released, which is the same amount of time in the video from when the drogue chute was opened until the debris passed the skydiver.

Metzger concluded the likely outcome is that a small piece of gravel about 3.3 cm in diameter flew by the camera by at about 30 meters per second, or 10 meters per second relative to the skydiver.

But while Metzter feels Occam’s razor favors parachute debris, he said his model only shows feasibility.

“I don’t consider it to be a smoking gun,” he told Universe Today. “There could be other, better scenarios.”

And so, Midtskogen told Universe Today, while the rock being a meteoroid isn’t completely ruled out, they feel the best answer is that it was a small rock embedded in the chute, and no further analysis is needed.

“I can confirm that the group will no longer do coordinated work on this,” Midtskogen said via email. “I think all of us feel confident about the conclusion and won’t work more on this individually either – although here I can only speak for myself. It was shown how a pebble packed in the chute could reappear well above the chute, and there is no strong evidence against a small size, so this has been easy to accept.”

While this rock ended up not likely to be a meteoroid, Midtskogen added, the crowdsourcing and interest in the video was overwhelming and encouraging.

“So, no meteorite, but a good story,” he said good-naturedly in his email to Universe Today. “Our mood is still good, and we talk about putting up a plaque at ground zero: “On 17th June 2012 a pebble fell here, witnessed by 6 million people on YouTube”.

Additionally, the skydiver, Anders Helstrup, seemed relieved more than anything.

“After all we seem to have found a more natural explanation to the video,” he told Universe Today. “And that is a good thing. I see that this had to have been MY mistake – packing a pebble into my parachute (I always pack myself). Our intention was to find out more and this way let the story out in the public, for people to make up their own minds. This became way bigger than I had imagined.”

In the end, while this story was not as fantastic as it might have been, it shows the beauty of crowdsourcing and using science to analyze a puzzle. And I readily admit to being overly enthusiastic in my initial article about this being a meteoroid, but I have to agree with Phil Plait who may have said it best in his update today: I would have loved to have this to have been a real meteoroid, but I’m glad this worked the way it did:

The video-makers were honest, did their level best to figure this out, and when they got as far as they could, they put it out to the public. And when it was shown to not be what they had hoped, they admitted it openly and clearly.
Phil Plait

Golden Spike Still Needs Your Help to Get to the Moon

Concept of a Golden Spike Co. lunar lander

Last December the Golden Spike Company announced its plans to enable private-sector lunar exploration missions which would be feasible, profitable, and possible — even without government funding. Comprised of veteran space program executives, managers, and engineers, Golden Spike intends to stand on the shoulders of current space technology to develop lunar transportation systems that can be used by agencies and private interests worldwide to get humans back to the Moon… but they still need your help getting the word out.

“We’re running an Indiegogo campaign as an experiment in public outreach and interest in human lunar expeditions,” Golden Spike CEO and planetary scientist Alan Stern explained to Universe Today in an email.

Recently Golden Spike started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo with the goal of raising $240,000 for international outreach (that’s a dollar for every mile to the Moon!) but, with only 16 10 days left in the campaign, only $9,400 $12,134 has been contributed.* While dollar-for-mile that’s still farther than any humans have traveled into space since Apollo, it’s unfortunately quite short of their goal.

CEO and famed planetary scientist Alan Stern blames himself.

“Simply put, we didn’t put the right people and resources on this Indiegogo campaign,” Stern wrote in an announcement on the Indiegogo site on April 9.

But despite the small amount of time remaining, he’s not giving up.

“We’re going to take advantage of the press of time left — just 16 days — to reach out to the broader public about people they can be a part of a historic new era of human lunar exploration,” Stern writes.

“To do that, you’ll be seeing Golden Spike in the press quite a bit more the next two weeks.”

And he’s asking for your continued help to not just contribute, but also to get the word out.

“Speak to friends and colleagues. Message on sites like Twitter and Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn. Send emails. Heck, put up signs and hand out flyers! We’re in the final phases of this campaign, ask people to join in. Let them know why you joined. Tell them their participation will make a huge difference… If we do this right, we can succeed.”

While contributions to the Golden Spike campaign won’t be used to launch rockets or build Moon bases, they will be used to reach out to potential international partners and show them that people are indeed interested in getting people back to the Moon… proven by the fact that they’ll even put some of their own money into the venture.

Small donations, large donations… each contribution no matter the size shows that people will invest in a future of lunar exploration. Put some “skin in the game,” if you will.

Click here to contribute to the Golden Spike campaign. And even if you can’t contribute financially, help get the word out. Share this article, tell people about the campaign, let them know that our future on the Moon doesn’t have to rely on fickle government funding or be subject to catastrophic budget cuts.

We got there before, we can get there again. The Moon awaits.

“Make the point that 40-plus years of waiting for governments to do this for us showed that the people who want humans to explore the Moon have to take personal action if we want it.”

– Alan Stern, planetary scientist and Golden Spike Company CEO

Read more about the Golden Spike Company mission here.

PS: Be sure to email [email protected] when you donate to the campaign and let them know your name, city, and state, and who referred you to donate (in this case, Universe Today.) They’re giving prizes for the top US state, top country, and top referrals!

(*Article updated on April 15.)