NASA is crowdsourcing the hunt for asteroids in Earth's purview, and has teamed up with the proposed space mining corporation Planetary Resources to use your spare compute time to the project.
Last year the Planetary Resources visited hipster festival SXSW to announce the Asteroid Data Hunter challenge, a $55,000 competition for developers to build pattern-matching algorithms for spotting the movement of asteroids through space.
NASA then tested the entries on its stockpile of images of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and found that the best algorithms managed to increase detection rates of asteroids by over 15 per cent. These algorithms were implemented in a free piece of software that runs on volunteers' PCs and Macs to study photos from space and spot space rocks.
The application takes images from amateur astronomers' telescopes, and also uses data from NASA's own network of ground-based 'scopes, stored in a cloud repository. The software, distributed over a network of computers, will look for the transit of objects in the night's sky from the accrued image data.
NASA has built the open-source code in a 170MB bundle for Windows 7 and above, or a svelte 146MB package for Mac OS 10.10.2 or higher, and there's a build for Linux machines coming soon. The code needs 3GB of RAM to run. It is available for download now and up on Github.
NASA told SXSW this application will become a key part of its Asteroid Grand Challenge to spot the next civilization killer before it hits.
"The Asteroid Grand Challenge is seeking non-traditional partnerships to bring the citizen science and space enthusiast community into NASA's work," said Jason Kessler, program executive for NASA's Asteroid Grand Challenge.
"The Asteroid Data Hunter challenge has been successful beyond our hopes, creating something that makes a tangible difference to asteroid hunting astronomers and highlights the possibility for more people to play a role in protecting our planet."
Zoom and enhance
Follow the money
While executives at Planetary Resources are no doubt interested in avoiding being wiped out by incoming cosmic boulders, they are in the game for others reasons. The firm is on the lookout for asteroids that it can land on and harvest all of valuable minerals many contain using robot miners and automated smelting facilities.
The firm is backed by Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Charles Simonyi, and James Cameron, and was launched in 2012 with lofty claims of mining its first space rock by 2022. So far that plan has slipped a bit already.
Initially the company had planned to get its first asteroid spotting orbital telescope into orbit by 2014, and held a successful $1.5m crowdfunding campaign. But its first test platform was distributed over a wide area of Eastern Virginia when the Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket carrying it detonated over NASA's Wallops Flight Facility last October.
Planetary Resources will be taking another shot at getting a telescope into space next month, but there's still a long way to go before it can send out the planned automating mining and processing bots to likely targets. Then there's the piffling problem of getting the minerals back to Earth, or at least orbit, safely and economically.
Some assembly required
To boost the chances of success the firm wants to find rocks that are close and mineral rich, and there's a lot of sky to cover. By harnessing the general public's compute time it can pick up more candidates that can be studied more closely, so the firm's acting in its own - as well as humanity's - best interests, it said.
"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," explained Chris Lewicki, president of Planetary Resources.
"It has been exciting for our team to work with NASA on this project, and we also look forward to future space-based systems leveraging these results." ®