For all of the hype, how many times has Silicon Valley actually saved the world? I appreciate a good elevator pitch as much as the next person, but the only world-saving programmers that I know of are Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day and whoever was in charge of making sure the nukes didn’t all go off because of Y2K—a fictional person and a fictional problem.
But for the intrepid coder who wants to achieve Goldblum-level hero status, NASA is ready to start taking your calls next week for help spotting the next civilization-smashing asteroid swinging the solar system.
The problem isn’t that NASA isn’t able to keep watch over the solar system; the problem is that it collects more data than is reasonable to sift through. The gif on the right, via NASA, makes it look much easier than it is, but picture pulling that central asteroid out of a set of still images, while ignoring the satellites flashing around it, and other forms of noise, planets, and whatever else. The space agency is therefore partnering with “asteroid mining company” Planetary Resources to offer $35,000 in awards over the next six months, to citizen scientists who can “develop significantly-improved algorithms to identify asteroids in images captured by ground-based telescopes.”
Winning programs have to “increase the detection sensitivity, minimize the number of false positives, ignore imperfections in the data, and run effectively on all computer systems,” according to a press release issued by NASA .
“Protecting the planet from the threat of asteroid impact means first knowing where they are,” said Jenn Gustetic, NASA’s Prizes and Challenges Program executive. “By opening up the search for asteroids, we are harnessing the potential of innovators and makers and citizen scientists everywhere to help solve this global challenge.”
And asteroids are a global challenge. While 90 percent of near-Earth objects—asteroids and comets—that are larger than a kilometer across are mapped, we can still be caught off guard by the 99 percent of objects orbiting the Sun that aren’t being tracked. In February 2013, while we were all distracted by NEA 2012 DA14, a 40,000-ton asteroid passing between Earth and its geosynchronous satellites, a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia. Just last month, NEA 2000 EM26, an asteroid three-football fields wide, buzzed Earth .
In addition to watching for threats, Planetary Resources wants to tag asteroid candidates to be redirected into orbiting around the Moon, so astronauts can explore—and one assumes, eventually extract resources from—them.
Frankly, I find it a little disconcerting that NASA is just now opening the door for any and all help. I know it’s unfair to think in binaries like this, but either the threat of disastrous asteroid impacts is under control or it isn’t, right? I guess even once asteroids are spotted, we don’t exactly have a great plan for redirecting the bringer of the apocalypse at the moment, so it’s possible that spotting the near-Earth asteroid too late just gives the rest of us someone to blame, which will be comforting in our final hours as we await the end.
Anyway, if that sounds like a job for you, or if you’re sick of people like me saying that coders will never do as much for the world as Norman Borlaug, further details are available here. Good luck; we might all be counting on you.