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American scientists are offering a $50,000 prize to the person who designs a system for tagging and tracking the potentially Earth-threatening asteroid, Apophis.

The asteroid is due to pass very close (astronomically speaking) to Earth in 2029. During this close encounter, its trajectory will be changed thanks to Earth's gravitational influence. There is a chance, albeit small, that it could be put on a path to collide with us in 2036.

Naturally, astronomers would like to be able to confirm that this isn't going to happen, hence the competition.

The Planetary Society is putting up the $50k prize money thanks to a donation from board member Dan Geraci. The competition is being run in conjunction with the European Space Agency, NASA, and a number of other space-related bodies.

The Planetary Society argues that it is vital we find out if the asteroid is likely to be set on a collision course as soon as possible. This will give us time to make plans to intercept and divert the rock, which is thought to be between 300m and 400m, and save us all from a fate worse than the dinosaurs'.

"While the odds are very slim that this particular asteroid will hit Earth in 30 years, they are not zero, and Apophis and other NEOs represent threats that need to be addressed," said Rusty Schweickart, Apollo astronaut and head of the Association for Space Explorers NEO (Near Earth Object) committee. 

The Society is inviting suggestions for ways to rendezvous with the asteroid and tag it so as to track its path as accurately as possible. There is an area of space several hundred metres wide which the scientists are referring to as the keyhole. If the astroid passes through this keyhole, it will be set on a collision course for 2036.

The Society will present the winning entries to the world’s major space agencies, and the findings of the competition will be presented at relevant scientific and engineering conferences.

Got an idea? Have a read of the rules and get cracking. ®

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