Since a trip to Mars is years and a whole lot of scientific development away, NASA is focusing on asteroids. If you've always dreamed of saving the planet from an asteroid, now is your chance. NASA kicks off a program on March 17 where "citizen scientists" will have the chance to come up with algorithms to help identify asteroids.
The contest, NASA's First Asteroid Grand Challenge Contest Series, will run for six months with $35,000 in awards given out. It's an interesting idea, using scientific-type people participants to develop significantly improved algorithms to identify asteroids in images captured by ground-based telescopes. The winning solution must increase the detection sensitivity, minimize the number of false positives, ignore imperfections in the data, and run effectively on all computer systems, according to a release issued by NASA.
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The thing is, this contest can also be taken as yet another sign of NASA's ever increasing navel-gazing approach to space exploration. Officially, NASA is supposed to be sending a craft to land on Mars in the next decade or so. However, the actual projects being pursued are this kind of thing - asteroid detection and earth science projects that have a clear-cut and obvious benefit for people now. Of course, this is likely a result of the reality of today when it comes to NASA in particular and the U.S. investment in space exploration in general.
NASA has seen its budget repeatedly slashed in recent years. Last year, Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, even warned that Johnson Space Center could find itself on the chopping block. This is an attitude that seems to be coming from the top of the federal government food chain, President Barack Obama himself. A smaller budget means less money for the big things, the projects that would take us back to the moon or to exploring our solar system further, and the president himself has said that he is more interested in projects that have a direct and obvious benefit.
"We will increase Earth-based observation to improve our understanding of our climate and our world -- science that will garner tangible benefits, helping us to protect our environment for future generations," Obama said at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in 2010. Since then, the president has stuck to his word on that point.
For now that leaves NASA focused on all things asteroid and Earth Science. It's hard to tell when and if NASA will actually be making any strides in space exploration, but in the meantime, you can totally help NASA protect us all from the asteroids. As NASA officials pointed out at their exhibit at South By Southwest on Monday, we need to start finding those things. Then when we find one that is heading right for us, we'll be ready to duck.