The space agency’s free new computer program turns amateur astronomers and citizen scientists into professional-grade asteroid hunters
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“Space,” beloved science-fiction author Douglas Adams famously wrote, “is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”
In fact, space is so big that scientists at NASA and their equivalents around the globe often have a hard time identifying and recording all the different stuff floating around in it. There’s just so much out there, and so many people looking from different angles at different times through different telescopes, it’s hard to keep track of what’s what.
It’s with that problem in mind that NASA this week announced the release of a high-powered asteroid hunting algorithm—in the form of a free desktop application—to the general public. The agency hopes that amateur astronomers around the world will use this tool to augment the often disparate efforts to identify new chunks of rock in the vast expanse of space, and floating dangerously close to the Earth, as well.
The computer program was created through NASA’s Asteroid Data Hunter challenge, itself a part of the space administration’s larger Asteroid Grand Challenge, and was done in partnership with the Redmond, Washington-based Planetary Resources Inc. The contest, explains a NASA release, was launched at last year’s South By Southwest conference, to develop more sophisticated means of detecting and identifying asteroids by way of land-based telescopes.
Using information provided in part by The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics' Minor Planet Center, as well as the University of Arizona's Catalina Sky Survey project, NASA's computer program will enable anyone with a telescope analyze images for potential asteroids, as well as determine if a positive hit is, in fact, a previously-identified chunk of rock, instead.
NASA claims that by using this new algorithm they’ve already seen a fifteen percent increase in positively identified new asteroids, and hope to see that number go up even higher with their release of the desktop application to the general public. As Planetary Resources president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki explains:
“We applaud all the participants in the Asteroid Data Hunter challenge. We are extremely encouraged by the algorithm created and it’s already making a difference. This increase in knowledge will help assess more quickly which asteroids are potential threats, human destinations or resource rich”
Threats, destinations, and resources. Three good reasons to download NASA’s new program, and start watching the skies.