New software based on an algorithm developed in an open competition hosted by NASA improves the detection rate of potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids. The software comes in the form of a free-to-download application, capable of being run from most laptops or desktops, transforming any amateur astronomer into a seasoned asteroid hunter.
The standard method of asteroid detection is carried out by imaging a single patch of sky at multiple occasions over a period of time, and searching for asteroids that appear as star-like objects in the images. This technique pre-dates the 1930 discovery of Pluto, however nowadays there are too many eyes in the sky, collecting too much data for the task to be tackled by hand.
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To keep on top of the problem, specialized computer algorithms were created in order to efficiently search through images, highlighting asteroids that could constitute a threat to Earth, or possibly even present an attractive target for redirection into a lunar orbit for a future manned exploration and resource extraction mission.
However, there are significant limitations to the current generation of asteroid hunting algorithms. Often they are either not sensitive enough to pick up the objects, or instead, provide false positive readings due to imperfections in the data.
The Asteroid Data Hunter competition offered a US$55,000 prize pool for the development of an improved asteroid hunting algorithm. The winning solution from each of the sub-categories of the competition were then used by NASA and its partner Planetary Resources Inc. to form the basis of the new application.
The finished software is reportedly more sensitive and less prone to picking up imperfections in the data, with an initial analysis of asteroids existing between Mars and Jupiter showing a 15 percent improvement in detection rates.
Amateur astronomers will simply have to capture an image through their telescopes, and run it through the application, which will then inform the user whether what they are seeing is a known asteroid, or a new discovery.
Whilst an asteroid impact triggering an extinction event is incredibly unlikely in the near future, such strikes have occurred on a periodic cycle throughout our planet's history. It is possible that advances in the field of asteroid detection may one day foresee and ultimately prevent the extinction of our own species.
Keen amateur astronomers can download the application from Topcoder.