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The Asteroid Data Hunter Challenge: NASA Wants Your Algorithms!

It is largely agreed upon that 66 million years ago, an asteroid collided with the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. It’s also understood that this type of catastrophe will befall our planet again sooner or later. While dinosaurs are cooler than us in nearly every way, we may have one advantage that could prevent us from suffering their same fate: The natural human ability to collaboratively problem solve could mean the avoidance of a modern mass extinction by flying space rock. NASA is hoping to harness this very human phenomenon with its Asteroid Data Hunter contest.

In said contest, the agency is offering $35,000 in prizes to the citizen scientists who can come up with the best improved algorithms for identifying potentially hazardous asteroids. The contest asks the entrants to create algorithms that can locate asteroids in images generated by terrestrial telescopes. The prize winning algorithms must “increase the detection sensitivity, minimize the number of false positives, ignore imperfections in the data, and run effectively on all computer systems,” NASA said in a press release.

Dino Asteroid IP

(NASA/Donald E. Davis)

The contest series is managed by the NASA Tournament Lab, which runs contests to incentivize massive brainstorming on the actual issues that NASA researchers face on a day-to-day basis. Jason Crusan, the director of the NASA Tournament Lab, said that “for the past three years, NASA has been learning and advancing the ability to leverage distributed algorithm and coding skills through the NASA Tournament Lab to solve tough problems… we are now applying our experience with algorithm contests to helping protect the planet from asteroid threats through image analysis.”

Monday morning, in a session at the SXSW conference, NASA’s Jason Kessler explained that the largest asteroids (1 km in diameter and up) of this type have been located, but that there are plenty of smaller ones that are much harder to find. Kessler said, “the problem is, there are about a million out there that go down to about the size of 30 meters … the likelihood of something hitting us in the future is pretty guaranteed, although we’re not freaking out that there is an imminent threat.” Kessler added that “if a 30-meter asteroid were to hit in the wrong place at the wrong time, it could wipe out an entire city, so that’s why we’re focused on that size.”

March 17th marks the commencement of this challenge and there is still time to create an account on the contest series website. The series runs through August.

What to do should we actually find an Earth-bound asteroid? Well, that, too is an issue on which NASA wants the public’s take. Check out our coverage of NASA crowdsourcing ideas for asteroid impact prevention.

Source: The Guardian

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