Asteroid mining startup Planetary Resources has partnered with NASA as part of the agency's mission to track rogue asteroids and find a candidate to pull into orbit around the moon. The company has been chosen as the first partner for NASA's Asteroid Grand Challenge, building on existing crowdsourcing efforts in order to find a better asteroid tracking algorithm. Starting early in 2014, NASA will begin running a contest based on information from the "Asteroid Zoo," a joint project by Planetary Resources, Zooniverse, and Chicago's Adler Planetarium. Asteroid Zoo, currently working towards a beta launch, is described as a game-like platform that asks the public to hunt for near-earth asteroids that existing software has missed. Using that data set, NASA will ask competitors to build new algorithms that can replicate those results, making its asteroid-finding systems better at the pattern recognition humans excel at.
NASA will develop the competitions and look at ways to use the resulting algorithms, while Planetary Resources will help put raw data from NASA-funded telescopes online and review the submissions. The exact win conditions haven't yet been nailed down: the company says it will be working on a ranking system that can balance factors like overall accuracy, success at finding all the asteroids in a data set, and minimizing computing time. While contestants create algorithms, Asteroid Zoo users will hopefully keep finding more rocks that will spur future competitions over the next few years.
NASA needs its asteroid-finding algorithms to be as smart as humans
Monitoring near-earth asteroids is an ongoing concern for NASA and other space agencies, as is figuring out a way to deflect or destroy anything that looks like it might be on a collision course for Earth, though NASA says the planet is safe for at least the next century. Earlier this year, the agency also said it was beginning work on an ambitious asteroid capture mission, planning to send a robotic spacecraft to grab a near-earth asteroid and tow it into lunar orbit, where it could be visited by astronauts, by 2025. Planetary Resources launched with the goal of mining asteroids for rare earths, water, and other resources, and its current plans are both more and less lofty than NASA's. The company is currently testing its first Arkyd spacecraft for launch next summer, the first real milestone in its timeline.
After a successful test launch, it will send up another craft, a space telescope ultimately meant to search for suitable asteroids. The Arkyd telescope was the linchpin of Planetary Resources' crowdfunding campaign, which led to the creation of the Asteroid Zoo: a $1.5 million Kickstarter promised backers the chance to direct the telescope themselves or upload a photo to take a "space selfie" with the Earth as a backdrop. In the long term, Planetary Resources hopes to beat NASA to the punch, deploying an asteroid-finding spacecraft in 2016 or 2017 with the goal of bringing back samples. However, the company emphasizes that its mission isn't as difficult as the one NASA has set. Its spacecraft will fly out to an asteroid to look for resources, not attempt to pull it back to the moon. And unlike NASA, Planetary Resources doesn't plan to send astronauts to visit its asteroid — so helping NASA find its candidate is still a big step up.