Amateur scientists can now help spot new asteroids using a free desktop application made available by NASA and space mining company Planetary Resources. The app was the result of a coding challenge launched at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in 2014 and was presented the other day at the SXSW 2015.
If you find new asteroids using the app, you help make our planet a safer place and you bring mining those celestial bodies for valuable resources one step closer to reality.
Asteroids are inhabitants of the space between Mars and Jupiter, where a planet seems to have failed to form when the Solar System was born. Nasa is interested in them because some of them sometimes fly past the Earth at relatively short distances. Those are called near-earth asteroids. A collision with a sufficiently heavy one could wipe out civilization as we know it. It is believed that the dinosaurs died out due to an asteroid impact 65 million years ago. NASA now has an Asteroid Initiative program for identification of near-earth objects including possible exploration by astronauts. There even are plans for an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) in the mid-2020s which - well the name says it, doesn't it? It's Armageddon, the movie, turned into reality.
Planetary Resources (PR) is a company founded in 2010 to mine asteroids for precious metals like platinum. But PR is interested in water as well, because it can be used to make propellants for spacecraft, which could then refuel in space. PR's first goal is to find suitable asteroids: ones that come close to Earth and have a high probability of containing valuable stuff. Naturally PR wants to have as many asteroids as possible to choose from.
The app that came out of last year's crowdsourcing project is called Asteroid Data Hunter. It can be downloaded for free here. To use it you need your own telescope or at least somebody's hi-res photographs of the night sky. According to Planetary Resources:
'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 to verify each detection by hand. This new algorithm gives astronomers the ability to use computers to autonomously and rapidly check the images and determine which objects are suitable for follow up, which leads to finding more asteroids than previously possible.'
The new algorithm inside the Asteroid Data Hunter has already been used to analyze old photographs, discovering 15% more asteroids from those. Now the software is available to anyone with the capability to make photographs of the night sky to discover even more. So the app, itself the product of a crowdsourcing initiative, now enables crowdsourcing of the analysis and discovery process.
Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.