There are so many asteroids flying through space that NASA needs help keeping track of them, particularly the ones near Earth. Asteroids, often confused with meteors and meteorites, are large enough to orbit Earth, and some even have their own moons. While some asteroids are only a few meters in diameter, others are hundreds of kilometers wide, according to Universe Today.
Some context: Asteroids become meteors when they enter Earth’s atmosphere, and they become meteorites if they actually hit Earth. According to asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources — that’s right, they want to mine asteroids for “useful materials like iron, nickel, water, and rare platinum group metals” — there are at least 9,000 asteroids in Earth’s orbit, and 1,000 more are discovered each year.
NASA has hired Planetary Resources to help identify small asteroids that have proved hard to detect. The Chelyabinsk, Russia meteor — it never actually hit Earth — was traveling 41,000 miles per hour when it exploded and “generated an explosion more than 30 times stronger than the atom bomb that struck Hiroshima,” according to Quartz.
Quartz reports that crowdsourcing has been an important element of their work:
Last month the US space agency announced it would begin working with Planetary Resources Inc. to expand its ability to detect asteroids.
Founded by space entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson to extract minerals and other resources from nearby asteroids, Planetary Resources has already experimented with the internet’s ability to bring people together. It used Kickstarter to fund the development of a satellite telescope to find asteroids and planets—and also take “space selfies” of its backers. The company also worked with Zooniverse, a citizen science group, to develop a game that lets anyone help hunt through sky survey data for unmapped asteroids.
Now NASA has asked Planetary Resources to expand upon that game, developing contests that challenge programmers to build software that can pick asteroids out of the 3 million images in the Catalina Sky Survey. Winners will receive cash prizes funded by NASA. For their part, Planetary Resources hopes the contest generates fresh data on the location of the asteroids it hopes to mine.
Just this week, a meteor exploded over Tucson, Ariz. Scientists from NASA, Chicago’s Field Museum and the American Meteor Society have flocked to the area in search of the meteor’s remains. The Arizona Daily Star reported that the scientists’ search is limited to public land, so they’re asking citizens to contact the groups if any meteorites are found on private property. As part its own crowdsourcing effort, the American Meteor Society is asking eyewitnesses to detail their experiences on its website.