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NASA to programmers: Save the Earth and fatten your wallet

Experts team up with space miners to sponsor asteroid finding algorithm contest

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NASA is teaming up with the asteroid-mining wannabes at Planetary Resources to offer $35,000 in prizes in a contest to develop algorithms to detect Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) – asteroids – with the goal of spotting those that might threaten the Earth.

Actually, saving our planet from destruction is but one goal of the Asteroid Data Hunter challenge. The other – and the reason that the asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources of Bellevue, Washington, is putting up the cash for the prizes – is profit.

"Asteroids pose both a possible threat and an opportunity for Earth: they could impact us, causing damage, OR possibly be mined for resources that could help extend our ability to explore the universe," the kickoff announcement of the Asteroid Data Hunter challenge states.

"Current asteroid detection initiatives are only tracking one percent of the estimated objects that orbit the Sun," Planetary Research president Chris Lewicki said when announcing the competition. "We are excited to partner with NASA in this contest to help increase the quantity and knowledge about asteroids that are potential threats, human destinations, or resource rich."

More power to the asteroid miners, say we. Should their desire to exploit the minerals to be found on NEOs save Earth from another Chelyabinsk or worse, God bless 'em. As NASA notes in a video describing their crowd-sourced Asteroid Grand Challenge NEO-detection efforts, "dinosaurs didn't have a space program" – and look what happened to them.

NASA Tournament Lab's Asteroid Grand Challenge

The multi-phase Asteroid Data Hunter challenge will kick off next Monday and if all goes as planned will wrap up this August. Participants are asked to develop "significantly improved algorithms" that can identify asteroids in NASA-provided images captured by a wealth of ground-based telescopes.

Being named top algorithmic asteroid hunter won't be a walk in the park. As NASA explains when outlining the challenge, "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."

The contest – aimed at "citizen scientists" and managed by NASA's Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) through the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL) – is divided into two phases of five segments each. Eight of the segments have awards, with first and second-place prizes that range from a $1,400 first prize for, as one example, the Phase 1 - Algorithm Productization challenge, to $250 for second place in the Phase 2 - Invitational Dataset Testing competition.

In addition, said citizen scientists who have Reliability Ratings on Topcoder, the platform being used to run the competition, are also eligible for Reliability Bonuses of up to $280 should they win first place in one of the segments.

That may not sound like much, but all rewards are not monetary in this world, eh? Winning first place in the Algorithm Productization challenge: $1,400. Receiving that challenge's Reliability Bonus: $280. Saving the Earth from a civilization-crippling asteroid impact: priceless. ®

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