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NASA Wants You to Help Save the World

Space returns as the final frontier of Interactive programming

By Michael Agresta, Fri., Feb. 28, 2014

NASA Wants You to Help Save the World
Photo by Thinkstock

Fans of late-Nineties Hollywood blockbusters have long harbored fantasies of saving humanity from killer asteroids, but these have historically involved getting launched into space with Ben Affleck or Bruce Willis and blasting the Earth-threatening rock to smithereens. Now, for those of us too busy to undergo astronaut training, NASA is offering a new, 21st century opportunity to help avert Armageddon: the Asteroid Grand Challenge. A useful contribution to the effort may even pay big money.

NASA representatives Jenn Gustetic and Jason Kessler are here at SXSW Interactive to recruit and encourage potential collaborators in this worldwide effort. Gustetic and Kessler have targeted the SXSW Interactive community because they'll especially need contributions from coders and developers. "We know we can't do it alone," says Gustetic. "We're using the Grand Challenge to say, 'Hey world, we're seeking your help.'"

As part of a Space Act Agreement with private space exploration firm Planetary Resources announced last November, NASA will conduct the first online crowdsourcing activity associated with the Asteroid Grand Challenge in 2014. This first challenge in the series will invite competitors to write algorithms to analyze Catalina Sky Survey data and identify the most near-Earth asteroids possible in that dataset while minimizing false positives. Competitor algorithms will be tested against the professional astronomers and observatories who are currently surveying this data. Since competitors will use existing data and not be expected to make new observations themselves, "It creates a pretty low barrier to entry for folks to contribute to solving this higher-level problem of protecting the planet from asteroid threats," Gustetic says.

Though official details for this challenge have not been released yet, NASA expects to engage the computer-science community through websites like TopCoder and InnoCentive. "There may be really interesting ways to bring in a coder or computer-science perspective, bring their experience and worldview to approach this in a different way," Kessler says.

Looking forward, the opportunities to contribute will be wide-ranging. Information professionals could potentially pitch in by developing programs to better network telescopes together, or even just by helping with basic Web accessibility and user-friendliness. "We could use help with a more elegant graphic user interface, all the way up to hardcore algorithm development," Kessler says.

"We haven't prebaked this thing," Kessler adds. "We've just put out the challenge and invited people. We're totally open to people coming in and coming up with a solution that we haven't even considered yet."

No prize purses have yet been announced, but they will be part of the mix. NASA has been crowdsourcing an increasing share of its science for a decade now, though the Asteroid Grand Challenge will be the most sustained effort so far around a specific subject area. Success stories of past crowdsourcing initiatives include the 2011 Green Flight Challenge, which was won by a group that managed to fly an aircraft 200 miles on about a half-gallon of gas per passenger. Gustetic calls it "a Lindbergh moment for green aviation." The winners took home $1.35 million.

Gustetic and Kessler's SXSW Interactive Panel "Are We Smarter Than the Dinosaurs?" will introduce the Grand Challenge paradigm and the specific hazards and opportunities presented by asteroids. In addition to working to avert a catastrophic collision, NASA also has an eye on asteroids as potential avenues for exploration. In a recent press release touting their partnership in the Asteroid Grand Challenge, Planetary Resources expressed a hope that asteroids would provide the basis for a "sustainable, even indefinite presence in space" both for research and commerce.

Gustetic and Kessler won't be the only panelists at SXSW Interactive talking about the future of space exploration. In addition to Saturday keynote speaker Neil deGrasse Tyson, space programming includes Astrotech's Thomas Pickens on space tech start-ups, Jason Kalirai from the Space Telescope Science Institute talking about the James Webb Space Telescope and life on other planets, Earth Space's Ruben Nunez on collaborative public-private partnerships for "the new space economy," and a live Q&A with astronauts in orbit, coordinated by NASA social media manager John Yembrick.

Gustetic and Kessler's panel addresses perhaps the most immediately vital concern: the preservation of our species. But it's also about the potential of humans to come together to solve our biggest, most threatening problems – the sort of thing that separates us from the Earth's previous inhabitants, or so we'd like to think.

"Survival is its own reward," Gustetic says. "The importance of the Grand Challenge is self-evident in avoiding the fate of the dinosaurs. But the power of engaging a passionate citizenry in the space program, democratizing space, is such an incredible message. I believe we're going to unlock so much innovation and increase the power of individuals to impact the future of humanity in really meaningful ways."

NASA Wants You to Help Save the World

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