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Zooniverse offers the chance to discover an asteroid

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jun 26, 2014, 15:01 UTC

Sen—Space enthusiasts are being presented with a new challenge—to discover asteroids that come close to the Earth.

It is the latest initiative to be offered under the Zooniverse umbrella of citizen science projects that have allowed ordinary folk to do useful science on their computers, tablets and smartphones.

Asteroid Zoo, as the new challenge is called, will serve a number of purposes. Spotting previously unknown chunks of rock will help guard the Earth against future unexpected and potentially devastating impacts.

But it will also assist Zooniverse’s partner Planetary Resources to identify asteroids that astronauts and robotic spacecraft might one day be able to mine for profit.

The cosmic missiles are known as Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and Asteroid Zoo joins more than 25 other projects in the Zooniverse family. It will run using data collected over many years by two telescopes near Tucson, Arizona, and another at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia.

Called the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), this scanning of the heavens has already discovered many hundreds of asteroids plus other objects since 1999. Participants will be trying to find others that were missed when the images were first examined.

Astrophysicist Rob Simpson, of the University of Oxford, led development of the Asteroid Zoo website. He told Sen: the Catalina Sky Survey is probably the best resource for finding asteroids because this has been surveying a large area for a long time.

“The idea is that participants are going to be shown four images of the same patch of the sky but at different times, and they can view these images in different ways. We want to see if they can they spot an asteroid in the data.

“We’re doing this for lots of reasons. One is to discover new asteroids, which is useful because these are generally going to be ones that come close and cross Earth’s orbit. But we’ll also use the results to try to train a computer to do this too.

“It is a task that you feel you ought to be able to do with the computer but it is actually hard to train a computer to do it. The asteroids look like points of light that move between the images, but sometimes there are scratches or dust on the images that confuse a computer but don’t confuse a person.

Asteroid Zoo

A screenshot of a typical star field that participants in Asteroid Zoo might be shown on the website. Image credit: Zooniverse

“We have cognition and perception and so can think about the context of the image we’re looking at, and so spot any artefacts, such as diffraction spikes around a star.”

Dr Simpson said he expects the project will turn up other discoveries too, such as comets and exploding stars, including supernovae.

Zooniverse’s Principal Investigator is astronomer Chris Lintott, also at the University of Oxford. Announcing Asteroid Zoo, he said: “Zooniverse believes in doing projects that make authentic contributions to science.

“So, in addition to being excited to share the data from this massive asteroid hunt with the whole astronomical community, we’re especially pleased that Asteroid Zoo will also focus on improving machine learning solutions to finding asteroids.

“In the future, we hope to use the classifications provided by volunteers to improve automated searching and suggest new methods by which machines might take up the strain.”

Experts say that 93 per cent of all asteroids ever discovered were found in the past 15 years, and half of the NEAs were found by the CSS. Astronomers are tracking 620,000 objects in the Solar System, which is around one per cent of the estimated 60 million orbiting the Sun.

And while more than 90 per cent of potentially hazardous asteroids are known about, fewer than one per cent of those smaller than 100 metres across have been found, yet at this size they could still hit Earth with devastating consequences.

Planetary Resources launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign last year with the goal of launching the first public space telescope, ARKYD, to look for asteroids. It raised $1.5 million with pledges from more than 18,000 people worldwide.

Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources, said in a statement: “With Asteroid Zoo, we hope to extend the effort to discover asteroids beyond astronomers and harness the wisdom of crowds to provide a real benefit to Earth.”