NASA wants you ... to join Grand Challenge to hunt down asteroids

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NASA's latest "Grand Challenge" is a biggie: Can you think of better ways to find potentially threatening near-Earth asteroids and do something about those threats? Your ideas could become part of the space agency's vision for the next decade.

The Asteroid Grand Challenge was announced on Tuesday at NASA Headquarters in Washington, but a lot of the details still have to be filled in. For instance, what are the specific tasks to be covered by the challenge? How much money will it take to stimulate the required innovations? Over the next month, NASA is gathering ideas under the terms of a request for information, with the aim of setting up a game plan for the years ahead.

"The purpose of the Grand Challenge is a call to action to continue the awareness around the issue of asteroid threats," Jason Kessler, NASA's program executive for the Asteroid Grand Challenge, told NBC News.

The program complements NASA's initiative to identify and bring back an asteroid so that astronauts can study it in the vicinity of the moon. It also meshes with NASA's long-running program to identify near-Earth asteroids.

"NASA already is working to find asteroids that might be a threat to our planet, and while we have found 95 percent of the large asteroids near the Earth's orbit, we need to find all those that might be a threat to Earth," NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said in an agency news release. "This Grand Challenge is focused on detecting and characterizing asteroids and learning how to deal with potential threats. We will also harness public engagement, open innovation and citizen science to help solve this global problem."

All this interest in asteroids got an extra jolt in February when a meteor blast sent a shock wave sweeping over Siberia, injuring more than 1,000 people. The 55-foot-wide (17-meter-wide) space rock behind that flare-up was relatively small, as space threats go, but even somewhat larger rocks are difficult to detect in advance using current tools. The Grand Challenge is meant to stimulate the development of new tools and techniques, Kessler said.

For instance, the program might encourage the development of nanosatellites equipped with expandable pop-out mirrors that could do a better job of detecting dim asteroids. It could offer prizes for improving the software that models an asteroid's shape. Or it could establish school observation networks to bring the power of crowdsourcing to asteroid detection.

"I guarantee you there's a number of great ideas out there that I'd never come up with," Kessler said. "We're being very deliberate in not saying 'this is the way it's going to be,' except to say this is how it's going to be to promote, engage and solicit ideas from the myriad number of great thinkers."

The program is being supported with funds that are being set aside for asteroid detection, but it's too early to estimate how much money the Grand Challenge would get, Kessler said.

The Obama administration has proposed spending $47 million over the next fiscal year on the entire asteroid detection effort, with $7 million of that to be used specifically to prepare for the asteroid-grabbing mission and the Asteroid Grand Challenge. The current plan calls for a robotic probe to be sent out toward an asteroid in 2017, so that it can be brought back for study by astronauts around 2021. Although the target asteroid hasn't yet been identified, NASA has said it would be in the range of 7 to 10 meters wide. There's a chance that the probe might break off a piece of a bigger asteroid and bring it back as an alternative.
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