The asteroid mining company Planetary Resources has just announced the launch of the Asteroid Zoo, which is kind of like SETI, but for asteroids. The program, a collaboration between Planetary Resources and Zooniverse, the Internet’s largest collection of citizen science projects of all shapes and sizes, is designed to encourage anyone and everyone to join the hunt for Near Earth Asteroids that might be dangerous and/or full of mining potential.
Asteroid hunters can scan images harvested by Catalina Sky Survey and classify objects as asteroids, artifacts, or nothing. I gave it a whirl, and found that I didn’t trust myself at all to determine what I was looking at. I turned to the tutorial (come on, who looks at the tutorial first?), which says that I’m supposed to find the moving dots in the images. It also points out that the “tools” options allows users to invert the black and white of an image or look at images one by one, or all at once. There’s also a guide to help users figure out what they’re looking at. The guide is hugely helpful — basically, asteroids look a little like animations or gifs, while artifacts such as star bleeds, cosmic rays, or even pixel malfunctions look like something else — luckily, users don’t have to know what that something is to tag is as an artifact.
Even after reading the guide and tutorial, I proved to be a lousy asteroid hunter. A couple of times I clicked “nothing,” as the images just looked like a bunch of stars, but apparently I missed at least one asteroid. Oops. Well, I’m glad I’m not the last line of defense. At least I can take solace in the fact that each person who searches helps to refine the program’s search mechanisms, as well as the technology used on space telescopes such as ARKYD, which was successfully funded on Kickstarter last year.
There are 644,632 known asteroids in our solar system, and according to Planetary Resources, 93% of those were discovered in the last 15 years. Still, scientists believe we’ve identified only about 1% of all the asteroids out there — hence NASA’s prioritization of asteroid identification. Let’s just hope everyone else out there is better at finding asteroids than I am.