NASA issues challenge: Help us protect the Earth from asteroids!

Scott Sutherland

The search for dangerous asteroids is gearing up now as NASA begins work on its Asteroid Redirect Initiative, and they're hoping that private industry, academia and citizen scientists will jump on board to help them in their quest to protect the Earth.

This 'Asteroid Grand Challenge' was announced at NASA headquarters on Tuesday, June 18th, during the Asteroid Initiative Industry and Partner Day.

"NASA already is working to find asteroids that might be a threat to our planet, and while we have found 95 percent of the large asteroids near the Earth’s orbit, we need to find all those that might be a threat to Earth," NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said at the event. "This Grand Challenge is focused on detecting and characterizing asteroids and learning how to deal with potential threats. We will also harness public engagement, open innovation and citizen science to help solve this global problem."

[ Related: Targets scarce for NASA's asteroid-capture mission ]

Now, you may be asking "Isn't this what NASA gets paid for?" Partly, yes, they are, but this task is so monumental, considering the number of asteroids that are still likely out there, that regardless of their staff and budget, they're going to need help. As Garver said, the current estimate is that we've found 95% of all potentially-dangerous asteroids that are 1 km or bigger, but along with those, we've probably only found about 10% of asteroids less than 300 m wide and around 1% of those less than 100 m wide. Some are just too small or dark to spot with the eyes we already have on the sky, and one way to help with that is to add more eyes.

There's already several industry projects that are attempting to launch spacecraft specifically designed for this sort of thing. The B612 Foundation's Sentinel mission is one that will put a spacecraft in orbit around the Sun at roughly the same orbit as the planet Venus. Once there, it will be looking back towards Earth's orbit to catch asteroids that might be lost to us at the moment as they 'fly out of the Sun'. Planetary Resources actually wants to mine asteroids for valuable resources, but first they need to find good candidates, so they're putting a crowd-funded telescope called ARKYD into space. It's primary mission is to locate asteroids, but Planetary Resources' fundraiser for the project is giving anyone who pledges $200 or more the chance to use the telescope for their own purpose, whether it be personal interest, academic, or business-related.

One way that citizen scientists can help out is by forming a backyard telescope network that can scan the skies for asteroids.

Spotting these dangerous asteroids is only the first step, though. They are also looking for ideas on how to deflect or redirect any asteroid that proves to be a threat to us. There are ideas on the board for this sort of thing, ranging from peppering an asteroid with paintballs all the way up to the use of nuclear weapons. However, the more ideas they get, the more options there are, and that can't be a bad thing (also, some ideas may end up working better for some types of asteroids but not for others).

To get as many ideas for these projects and missions as possible, NASA has put out a Request for Information, "seeking information on system concepts and innovative approaches for both aspects of the recently announced Asteroid Initiative: (1) the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and (2) an increased focus on defending our planet against the threat of catastrophic asteroid collisions."

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This challenge is supposed to go hand-in-hand with NASA's plan to retrieve an asteroid and park it in orbit around the Moon.

However, it's interesting to note that the announcement came just as word reached us of a draft bill in the works from The House Science, Space and Technology Committee that would de-fund the asteroid retrieval mission, restore funding to NASA's planetary sciences and put money into a mission to the Moon. The bill apparently also contains some rather dangerous ideas about removing NASA's contributions to climate science, so who knows if it will survive, or if it will be anything like its current form if it actually does pass.

Still, even if the asteroid retrieval mission dies before it even gets to the launch pad, this challenge to find near-Earth objects and figure out ways to deflect them is most certainly worthwhile, and given the catastrophic damage that one of these could cause (the Chelyabinsk meteor back in February was just a small example), this is the kind of citizen watch program that everyone should be participating in.

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