Asteroid Challenge

Do you fancy yourself as a citizen hero saving Earth from a catastrophic asteroid encounter? Well, now you can live out your fantasies. Software has been introduced that uses algorithm to analyze space junk in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which assists amateur astronomers in detecting asteroids that had not been spotted previously.

The software has been tested and has increased positive identification of new asteroids by 15 percent, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Called Asteroid Data Hunter, it was created using incorporated data provided by the Minor Planet Center (MPC) at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and images provided by the Catalina Sky Survey, an astronomical survey project run by the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. The data is focused on the discovery and study of near-Earth asteroids and comets.

The software was found as a result of NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, which was conducted in partnership with Planetary Resources, a private business with the mission to mine minerals and water from asteroids. The partnership was forged under a Space Act Agreement announced at the 2014 South by Southwest Festival held last December. The contest offered a total of $55,000 in awards for competitors to develop significantly improved algorithms to identify asteroids in images captured by ground-based telescopes.

Astronomers find asteroids by taking images of the same place in the sky and looking for star-like objects that move between frames, an approach that has been used since before Pluto was discovered in 1930. With more telescopes scanning the sky, the ever-increasing volume of data makes it impossible for astronomers alone. However, the ability to use computers to autonomously and rapidly check the images and determine which objects are suitable for follow up, leads to finding more asteroids than previously possible.

The desktop software is free and can be used on any basic desktop or laptop computer. Amateur astronomers may take images from their telescopes and analyze them with the software. The application will tell users whether a matching asteroid record exists and offer a way to report new findings to the Minor Planet Center, which confirms and archives new discoveries.

NASA is working to improve its ongoing identification and characterization of near-Earth objects for further scientific study. The work includes locating potentially hazardous asteroids and identifying them for redirection to a stable lunar orbit for future exploration by astronauts, who will use NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and the Orion spacecraft. The Asteroid Grand Challenge is one way that the agency encourages partnerships and collaborations with a variety of organizations.

The new asteroid hunting software can be downloaded for free.

For more information on the competition, see NASA website here.


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