Crowdsourcing Asteroid Detection
Back in February, space rocks made headlines in dramatic fashion when Russian motorists filmed a meteorite exploding over Chelyabinsk. Coincidentally, this came on the same day thata larger asteroid came within a mere 17,000 miles from the Earth, becoming the closest asteroid ever observed. This activity got the attention of government officials who began to look into ways to eliminate these threats from space.
This is, of course, easier said than done. While 95% of near-Earth objects one kilometer in diameter or more – the kind that could end civilization if they collided with the planet – have been detected and determined to not pose a threat any time soon, they same cannot be said for the smaller city-killers. There are simply too many of them. According to NASA officials, it will take much more time and money to get a similar handle on every space threat in our celestial neighborhood. And in the meantime, who knows what could be headed our way.
So as a result, NASA and the White House have decided to bring in reinforcements by asking the public to help in the search. The project will be part of the Obama Administration’s “Grand Challenges” in which the government enlists public/private partnerships, sometimes with financial incentives, to help reach certain ambitious goals. Other Grand Challenges include projects that center around research into the human brain, solar energy and electric vehicles. The asteroid project will also complement NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, which intends to redirect an asteroid into a stable lunar orbit so that astronauts can visit and study it.
The idea to basically crowdsource asteroid detection is reminiscent of the programs like the X Prize, which have offered financial incentives to the public to do things like create private spacecraft or a fuel-efficient car that gets 100 miles per gallon. The fact that some of these challenges have been successful despite their initially daunting premises could bode well for our future in the cosmos. After all, we’ve all seen the movies and I’m pretty sure we all will agree that the apocalypse is better left on screen.