NASA Is Crowdsourcing Asteroid Threat Management

NASA estimates that a football field-sized asteroid like 2012 DA14 (which came close to us Feb. 15, 2013) buzzes Earth about once every 40 years. The agency has put out an open call for ideas on identifying, studying, and if need be, diverting asteroids. Illustration courtesy of NASA
NASA estimates that a football field-sized asteroid like 2012 DA14 (which came close to us Feb. 15, 2013) buzzes Earth about once every 40 years. The agency has put out an open call for ideas on identifying, studying, and if need be, diverting asteroids. Illustration courtesy of NASA

Summer blockbuster season means lots of spandex-sporting superheroes and massive robots protecting our planet from Hollywood-imagined perils. But how would you like to really rescue the planet? No, we’re not talking about saving a few rare species from vanishing. And we don’t mean arresting climate change to shave a measly couple degrees off the thermometer a few decades from now.

OK, while both of those things are really important, we had in mind something on a much bigger scale. You could even say a “grander” scale: namely, preventing a mass die-off from the results of an asteroid collision with Earth. You might be thinking right now, “How could I possibly help, and would anyone with enough real clout bother to listen?”

It just so happens that the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA – has put out the call far and wide for ideas from would-be space rock watchers and wranglers. Recently, the agency announced a “Grand Challenge” inviting innovators and “citizen scientists” to help build a finer-meshed net in the hunt to mitigate the threat of near-Earth asteroids.

“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.

Why would NASA, which already has the actual job of scanning the heavens, solicit ideas from the public on the topic of errant asteroids? We can think of quite a few reasons why it would make sense. In no particular order, here go a couple.

More Brains on the Task

Make no mistake, NASA employs some of the smartest people you’ll ever encounter. But realistically, they can’t think up all the possibilities by themselves. That means there’s a good chance they’ll miss the best solution for any given problem, such as helping us dodge a calamitous strike from a celestial body. Engaging the public also probably won’t hurt NASA’s standing with said public – right now NASA is battling Congress over the agency’s desire to capture and inspect an asteroid with human astronauts (so far, Congress is opposed to funding such a mission).

Insufficient Funds

It’s no secret that NASA lacks the money to do all the things its management, engineers, and scientists would like to do. Traditionally, there’s long been significant tension when it comes to prioritizing the budget between the “aeronautics,” part of NASA’s mission and the “space” part of its mandate. More recently, the budget debate has pitted advocates of asteroid research versus those who think exploring the moon deserves more attention.

For the record, we don’t mean to be alarmists. Mathematically speaking, asteroid impacts like the one believed to have finished off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago don’t happen all that often.

But we have three very good reasons to get moving on a solution now. First, the odds that a very large body somewhere in space will eventually find itself on a collision course with Earth is a near certainty. Second, it’s a low-probability event with utterly calamitous consequences for non-preparation, comparable to not purchasing health insurance and then contracting cancer (a version of the so-called Black Swan phenomenon). Third – and there is a bit of greed involved with this one – asteroids are potentially chockful of water and valuable elements that are finite on our planet.

Whether or not NASA winds up incorporating ideas from the public, it’s a pretty remarkable step for the agency to even open up in such a manner. If you’d like to get involved, you can view NASA’s video announcing the Asteroid Grand Challenge here.

 

We’re interested in your idea too (and promise not to steal it)! Leave a comment to share your thoughts on whether we should be trying to better detect, and if need be, deflect threatening objects that might be hurtling toward Earth.