Sun, Mar 16, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Crowdsourcing may save Earth from asteroids

NASA is using crowdsourcing and prizes to engage the public in research that might prevent an extinction event

By Stuart Dredge  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Constance Chou

An asteroid at least 10km wide may have seen off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, but will humankind be smart enough to avoid a similar fate?

NASA is working on it. The space agency has spent the past 16 years searching for near-Earth asteroids larger than 1km in size, and claims to have found 98 percent of them.

Now it is enlisting coders and citizen scientists to help with a survey of smaller asteroids that could still be hazardous, including the launch on March 10 of a set of “Asteroid Data Hunter” developer contests.

In a session at an SXSW conference held in Texas, NASA’s Jason Kessler and Jenn Gustetic explained how the agency is using a mixture of crowdsourcing and prizes to further its asteroid-hunting efforts.

“This may be news to you, but humans weren’t first to dominate the Earth” Gustetic said. “Dinosaurs dominated the planet for a lot longer than we’ve dominated the planet. A fraction of the time, in fact.”

She outlined the dinosaur domination formula — “grow to a gigantic size and then eat any competition” — which actually made them vulnerable to the “very bad day” 66 million years ago when an asteroid struck near the Gulf of Mexico, causing the fifth mass extinction that the planet had seen.

“A mass extinction is something that takes out 75 percent of the species on the planet over two million years,” she said, noting that by comparison to the dinosaurs, humankind has not dominated for very long at all.

“All of human history has been the last eight seconds of the cosmic calendar, and in fact that last second is pretty much everything we know about today,” she said. “We have only been here legitimately for a blink of an eye, in the time span of the cosmic calendar.” So, are we smart enough to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs?

“We’re toolmakers, we have opposable thumbs,” she said. “We’re amazingly social creatures able to collaborate and work together to invent anything from the wheel to rockets, and we’ve figured out how to use technology to our advantage to network skills and creativity. Geographic separation is in many ways not a barrier any more to collaboration, the biggest difference is we’re aware of our place in the universe. We know we’ve only been around for one second on the cosmic calendar. Previous dominant life-forms on this planet didn’t have that kind of awareness.”

Given those things, humankind should have a survival advantage over the dinosaurs, with our adaptability enabling us to move and diversify our food chain.

“They ate two or three things, so if those two or three things go, they’re pretty screwed,” she said.

NASA’s Grand Challenge, announced last year as the latest way to search for potentially hazardous asteroids, is capitalizing on the agency’s previous efforts to find the asteroids measuring 1km and more.

“We found most of those. The problem is there are about a million out there that go down to about the size of 30 meters,” Kessler said. “The likelihood of something hitting us in the future is pretty guaranteed, although we’re not freaking out that there is an imminent threat.”

Kessler talked about the “profound” experience of visiting Arizona’s meteor crater as a way to understand that the Earth does get hit from time to time, as well as 1908, 1947 and 2013 strikes in Russia — the latter of which caused more than US$40 million of damage.

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