NASA Wants Help Preventing Asteroids From Destroying Earth

PHOTO: This xenon-powered engine could be used in the hunt for asteroids. So can your suggestions.NASA/JPL-Caltech
This xenon-powered engine could be used in the hunt for asteroids. So can your suggestions.

NASA is looking for asteroids and wants you to join the hunt. But don't expect to be starring in a real-life version of "Armageddon" any time soon.

NASA unveiled some of its plans for the Asteroid Initiative at a news conference today.

While the engineers are working on the exact details of exploring and redirecting asteroids that travel a little too close to the Earth, others sent a call out to amateur scientists everywhere in what they're calling a "Grand Challenge." The challenge's statement was seen in bright red letters throughout their presentation: "Find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them."

Jason Kessler, the program executive leading the Grand Challenge, said at today's conference that the project isn't in response to any specific asteroid hurtling towards Earth.

"This is a recognition of the world that we now live in," he said. "We are more connected and better educated, and this is an opportunity to take advantage of all those aspects."

Kessler sees the public being involved primarily through two different channels. The first is by getting people more involved in the act of spotting asteroids. He looks to GalaxyZoo, a project where users quickly categorize galaxies based on their shape and lighting, for inspiration.

"We have a large data set already associated with asteroids," he said. "Are there ways that we can creatively bring people in to help with this problem?"

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The other channel Kessler sees may appeal to the more tech-savvy amateur scientists -- a Request for Information document, or RFI. In the document, NASA encourages all types of organizations to submit ideas on what they would like to see the Asteroid Initiative do.

Robert Lightfoot, the associate administrator for NASA, admitted that this is very different direction than what the organization has done in the past.

"We want to hear from you," he said during today's conference.

When an audience participant asked if individuals, not just organizations, could submit ideas, he replied, "Absolutely."

The White House also supports the initiative.

"I applaud NASA for issuing this Grand Challenge because finding asteroid threats, and having a plan for dealing with them, needs to be an all-hands-on-deck effort," Tom Kalil, deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in a statement.

Last month the White House assured members of the media that Asteroid 1998 QE2, which was set to pass by Earth on May 31, wasn't a threat to the planet.

NASA also hosted a Google+ hangout at 2 p.m. ET today during which experts directly answered questions regarding the initiative.

Kessler added that there were also plans to have digital brainstorming sessions throughout the summer, as well as a workshop for later in the fall.

However, much of the Grand Challenge is a work in progress, according to Kessler.

"We don't have it all nailed down yet," he said in response to a question about how NASA plans on collaborating and coordinating their activity with thousands of individuals eager to help. "In a year, I'll have a better answer."