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

Hypothetical astronaut mission to an asteroid. Credit: NASA Human Exploration Framework Team

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.

NASA Plans To Deepen Asteroid Searches With Planetary Resources

An artist's conception of two tidally locked objects orbiting the Sun from afar. The system: 2010 WG9 may likely look like this. Credit: zmescience

Planetary Resources Inc. — that company that is developing a crowdsourced space telescope to search for asteroids — is planning to work on “crowdsourced software solutions” to make it easier to find asteroids and other near-Earth objects, using NASA-funded data.

NASA announced that Planetary Resources will receive a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement to help NASA characterize near-Earth objects. It’s the first initiative announced under NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, which the agency announced this summer as a vehicle to find threats to Earth.

A contest is planned in 2014 that will also include participation from the Zooniverse’s forthcoming Asteroid Zoo platform (which includes participation from Planetary Resources). Zooniverse is known for providing ordinary people the chance to participate in astronomical searches, including galaxies and asteroid features.

NASA’s role will be to “develop and manage” the contest, while Planetary Resources is expected to “facilitate the use of NASA-funded sky survey data and help support the algorithm competition and review results,” the agency stated.

NASA is trying mightily to move forward with its plans to capture an explore an asteroid in the next few years, but there’s no guarantee that the agency will receive the funds it wants for it in the fiscal 2014 budget. Politicians have expressed concern that the mission is not interesting the public; besides which, the agency is already battling for funds for its commercial crew and planetary science programs, among others.

Source: NASA

‘Space Selfie’ Telescope Could Hunt Alien Planets … If It Raises A Cool $2M

Example of an orbital 'selfie' that Planetary Resources' ARKYD telescope could provide to anyone who donates to their new Kickstarter campaign. Credit: Planetary Resources.

A crowdfunded telescope — best known for offering “space selfies” for backers as an incentive to send money — is now considering a search for alien planets.

Planetary Resources Inc. (the proposed asteroid miners) announced a new “stretch goal” for its asteroid-hunting Arkyd-100 telescope.

If the company can raise $2 million — double its original goal — it promises to equip the Arkyd telescope to look at star systems for exoplanets. The project is still short the $1 million required to receive any money, but the target appears to be close enough now to give Planetary Resources confidence that more funds will come for new initiatives.

The motivation for planet hunting was mechanical trouble besetting the famous Kepler space telescope. Kepler recently lost the second of its four reaction wheels, devices that are used to stabilize the telescope in space as it seeks alien worlds.

Artist's conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Because Kepler needs at least three reaction wheels to point towards targets, its future is uncertain. Some planet searching is still possible with ground-based observatories, however.

“With NASA’s recent equipment failure on the Kepler telescope (RIP, Kepler!), our search for extrasolar planets nearly came to a grinding halt. If we can meet our stretch goal, we can resume some of this progress by enhancing the Arkyd,” Arkyd organizers stated on their Kickstarter campaign website.

“We’re partnering with exoplanet researchers at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to equip citizen scientists like YOU with the tools to join a search that’s captivated us for generations.”

Arkyd would use two methods to hunt down planets:

Transiting, or seeing the dip in a star’s brightness when a planet passes in front of it;

Gravitational microlensing, or finding planets by measuring how the gravity of the star (and its planets) distorts light from stars and galaxies behind.

With 19 days to go, Arkyd is at about $857,000 of its preliminary $1 million goal that it must reach to receive any money.

If it can raise $1.3 million, Planetary Resources proposes to build a ground station at an undisclosed “educational partner” that would double the download speed of data from the orbiting observatory.

The project has more than 9,500 backers. Two more stretch goals will be revealed if Arkyd receives 11,000 backers and 15,000 backers, Planetary Resources stated.

More information on the Arkyd Kickstarter campaign is here.