Haven’t you always wanted to live out Michael Bay’s Armageddon? Well, now is your chance, sort of. NASA and the White House want your help in identifying asteroids that could potentially crash into Earth with devastating effect. This is part of the administration’s 21st Century Grand Challenges, “ambitious but achievable” goals involving science and technology, and designed to engage the public. Sometimes there are prizes.
Lori Garver, NASA’s Deputy Administrator, said, “This is really a call to action to find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them.” She also takes the time to note that humans are “smarter than the dinosaurs.” It’s nice to be reminded of that sometimes, but the point would seem to be that we can hopefully avoid being wiped out by a big flying rock slamming into our planet. I certainly hope so.
The primary goal of this Grand Challenge is to aid with the location of an appropriate space rock to use in the Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM (formerly titled Asteroid Retrieval Mission). This is a plan to move an asteroid into a lunar orbit so astronauts can visit the site and train for the real thing. That sounds much more exciting than Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis bounding around in a swimming pool.
A robotic spacecraft will intercept and redirect this asteroid, but first they need to find the right one. As you can imagine when it comes to capturing a massive chunk of space debris, there are some specific requirements involved. It should be a slow-moving asteroid, one that will be near Earth and the Moon around 2020. Size, shape, consistency, and other factors also come into play.
At the moment there are a handful of potential candidates, but it is unclear if they will work out or not. With the partnership between the government, private companies, and research agencies, as well as “backyard astronomers,” NASA hopes to narrow their search and track down a suitable candidate.