We are continually being surprised by new discoveries of near-Earth asteroids and comets, often noticing them only after they have completed a close approach. Only one asteroid has ever been found and projected to impact prior to its actually doing so. With that in mind, NASA, Planetary Resources, and Zooniverse have formed a collaboration to use citizen scientists to detect members of the vast swarm of near-Earth objects not yet recognized or mapped.
The world's general level of concern and caution concerning asteroid impacts jumped dramatically with the Chelyabinsk meteor strike, whose explosive energy was equal to a half-megaton blast. We currently know the orbits of about 500 near-Earth asteroids of this size (about 20 m / 66 ft diameter), but there are an estimated 20 million of them out there.
While programs like NASA's Near-Earth Object (NEO) program have claimed to have discovered over 90 percent of an estimated 1,000 near-Earth objects more than a kilometer in size (explosive yield about 100,000 megatons), they are still being discovered at a rate of 8-10 per year. For asteroids larger than 100 m / 328 ft in diameter (yield of about 100 megatons), only about 5,000 of an estimated 20,000 have been found.
Building on the considerable successes of crowdsourced research using citizen scientists, NASA's Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation is partnering with Planetary Resources and Zooniverse to sponsor challenges under the Asteroid Grand Challenge program. The overall goal is to develop and use search algorithms and methods that will more effectively find asteroids and comets following orbits that pass close to Earth.
Planetary Resources will bundle NASA's existing sky survey data for use by the partnership, and will provide hands-on development and management of the contests and competitions. The broad form of the contests and competitions will be developed by NASA, which will also investigate how the best solutions might be reduced to practice within existing NEO search programs. Zooniverse will make available its Asteroid Zoo platform, whose development began in June under an agreement with Planetary Resources.
"This partnership uses NASA resources in innovative ways and takes advantage of public expertise to improve identification of potential threats to our planet," said Lindley Johnson, program executive of NASA's near Earth object observation program. "This opportunity is one of many efforts we're undertaking as part of our asteroid initiative."
"The foundation of the asteroid grand challenge is partnerships like this one," said Jason Kessler, program executive for the asteroid grand challenge. "It fits the core purpose of the grand challenge perfectly: find innovative ways to combine ideas and resources to solve the problem of dealing with potentially hazardous asteroids."
The first contest is expected to launch early in 2014. We'll keep you notified, as participating in such crowdsourced research projects tends to be fun, as well as valuable.