NASA and Planetary Resources partner on asteroid-hunting contests

Image: Near-Earth asteroid
An artist's conception shows the asteroid Apophis passing near Earth.

People have been putting quarters into "Asteroid" video games since 1979, but NASA and Planetary Resources are partnering up to create 21st-century asteroid contests that could result in payoffs for the players.

The venture was announced Thursday during NASA's Asteroid Initiative Ideas Synthesis Workshop in Houston. NASA says it's the first partnership associated with its Asteroid Grand Challenge, which is aimed at improving the space agency's ability to identify and cope with rogue asteroids.

The asteroid algorithm challenge will build upon Planetary Resources' pre-existing plans to work with Zooniverse and the Adler Planetarium to crowdsource the detection of potentially hazardous asteroids.

That "Asteroid Zoo" project is due to launch next year. Planetary Resources, a commercial asteroid-mining venture based in Bellevue, Wash., promised to set up Asteroid Zoo as a stretch goal at the end of its $1.5 million Kickstarter campaign.

Asteroid Zoo is modeled on the Zooniverse platform's other citizen-science projects, including Galaxy Zoo and Planet Hunters. Internet users will be enlisted to scan through 3 million images from the Catalina Sky Survey and look for visual characteristics associated with near-Earth asteroids.

What humans can teach computers
The idea is that humans tend to be better at pattern recognition than computers. If the wisdom of crowds can be enlisted to find more of the millions of potentially threatening (or potentially valuable) asteroids that are thought to be out there, that's great. And here's where the NASA partnership comes into play: Planetary Resources has agreed to facilitate the use of sky-survey data for the asteroid search, and then help NASA with a competition that will follow up on the asteroid hunt.

What is it about Asteroid Zoo's "wisdom of crowds" that can distinguish between actual asteroids and false alarms? Which features in the images are particularly tricky to deal with? Can the lessons from Asteroid Zoo be incorporated into enhanced algorithms for automated asteroid surveys? Answers to such questions are what NASA and Planetary Resources hope to find through a series of coding contests.

"We want to extend the base beyond astronomers," Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, told NBC News. "It's finding those 'left-field' solutions that can be brought to bear on this problem."

Lewicki compared the concept to the NASA Tournament Lab and its ISS Longeron Challenge. That online challenge asked a community of more than 600,000 coders to calculate the orientations of solar panels on a virtual International Space Station to maximize total power output. It sounds geeky, but coding geeks were exactly what NASA was looking for. The top scorers in that challenge shared $30,000 in cash prizes.

What lies ahead
It's too early to say exactly how NASA will structure the asteroid algorithm challenge, or what sorts of prizes will be offered. But sometime next year, perhaps in parallel with Asteroid Zoo, the space agency expects to launch the first competition. Although NASA will take care of the contest prizes, no money will change hands between the space agency and Planetary Resources, under the terms of the Space Act Agreement governing the partnership.

"This partnership uses NASA resources in innovative ways and takes advantage of public expertise to improve identification of potential threats to our planet," Lindley Johnson, program executive of NASA's near-Earth object observation program, said in Thursday's news release. "This opportunity is one of many efforts we're undertaking as part of our asteroid initiative."

Asteroid Zoo and the asteroid algorithm challenge aren't the only items on Planetary Resources' agenda for 2014: The company is planning to put a prototype satellite in orbit next year, in preparation for the launch of its first asteroid-hunting Arkyd-100 space telescope. Eventually, Planetary Resources intends to turn a profit by identifying and mining near-Earth asteroids for their water and precious metals.

"Asteroids hold the resources necessary to enable a sustainable, even indefinite presence in space — for science, commerce and continued prosperity here on Earth," Lewicki said. "By harnessing the public's interest in space and asteroid detection, we can more quickly identify the potential threats, as well as the opportunities."

Want to find out what else is up at the Asteroid Initiative Ideas Synthesis Workshop? Tune in NASA TV from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. ET on Friday.

More about the asteroid hunt:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.