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article imageNASA wants you to help find killer-asteroids

By Jordan Howell     Jun 18, 2013 in Science
In a move that might one day save the world, if not bring out the best minds in amateur science, NASA put out a call to citizens and space geeks everywhere today: if you have ideas on how to locate or destroy killer-asteroids, we want to hear from you.
The new plan, formally known as the Asteroid Grand Challenge, seeks input from citizen scientists, amateur astronomers, academia, industry, and even other government agencies to find all near-Earth asteroids that pose a significant threat and develop reasonable solutions for their deflection or destruction.
In an interview with NBC News, NASA's program executive for the Asteroid Grand Challenge Jason Kessler said, "The purpose of the Grand Challenge is a call to action to continue the awareness around the issue of asteroid threats.”
The timing of NASA’s announcement could hardly be more appropriate. On February 15 a 55-foot meteor exploded over the Siberian industrial city of Chelyabinsk, injuring more than 1,000 people. This occurred only 16 hours before a close-encounter with the 100-foot asteroid 2012 DA14 which had been discovered less than a year prior to its transit.
“NASA already is working to find asteroids that might be a threat to our planet, and while we have found 95 percent of the large asteroids near the Earth’s orbit, we need to find all those that might be a threat to Earth,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said in Tuesday's press release. “This Grand Challenge is focused on detecting and characterizing asteroids and learning how to deal with potential threats. We will also harness public engagement, open innovation and citizen science to help solve this global problem.”
Asteroids are common in the solar system. The barren chunks of rock, dating back to the origins of the Earth, spend their lives tumbling harmlessly and silently through the vacuum of space.
Of the millions of asteroids that populate our solar system, 9,000 are classified as near-Earth asteroids, approximately 981 of which measure over one kilometer in diameter.
Yet the Asteroid Grand Challenge involves both identifying those asteroids that are capable of causing a mass extinction as well as those that could cause catastrophic regional damage.
“Recently, 200 experts at the 2013 Planetary Defense Conference concluded that we’ve discovered only a small percentage of the objects that could destroy a city or cause severe regional destruction, and such an object could enter our atmosphere with little or no warning,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Finding such an asteroid and changing its trajectory would be, according to Kalil, “one of the most important accomplishments in human history.”
Robert Lightfoot, the associate administrator for NASA, was quick to admit during the press conference that this is a very different approach for the agency. Typically, NASA meticulously plans everything so far in advance that anytime they do solicit input from industry or scientists projects are too far along to alter in any significant way.
"We want to hear from you," said Lightfoot.
The Asteroid Grand Challenge is just one part of a reorientation within the agency known as the Asteroid Initiative, which includes a number of other high-profile missions.
NASA's first mission to robotically collect samples from the asteroid Bennu is already in the development stage, with a rendezvous planned for 2018 and a return to Earth in 2023.
NASA has also made headlines for planning to robotically capture a near-Earth asteroid and place it in the Moon's orbit for astronauts to eventually visit. However, the cost and viability of this plan has been called into question and its funding is less than certain.
If you have any ideas on how to identify, deflect, or destroy a killer-asteroid, or if you have any other ideas of what the Asteroid Initiative should accomplish, then NASA wants you to respond to its request for information, or RFI.
The deadline for the RFI is July 18.
View the full press conference here.
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