Nasa seeks coders to hunt asteroids

Artist conception of dwarf planet Ceres in the main asteroid belt Better code could help identify where asteroids are heading

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US space agency Nasa is seeking coders who could help prevent a global catastrophe by identifying asteroids that may crash into Earth.

Its Asteroid Data Hunter contest will offer $35,000 (£21,000) to programmers who can identify asteroids captured by ground-based telescopes.

The winning solution must increase the detection rate and minimise the number of false positives.

Scientists are increasingly calling for help to make sense of vast data sets.

The new improved asteroid hunting code must also be able to ignore imperfections in the data and run on all computer systems.

"Protecting the planet from the threat of asteroid impact means first knowing where they are," said Jenn Gustetic, executive of the programme.

"By opening up the search for asteroids, we are harnessing the potential of innovators and makers and citizen scientists everywhere to solve this global challenge."

Current asteroid detection is only tracking one percent of the estimated objects that orbit the sun, according to asteroid mining firm Planetary Resources, which is partnering with Nasa in the contest.

Human curiosity

Zooniverse is one of the leading online platforms for citizen scientists, working on a range of projects including classifying galaxies.

In February it racked up one million volunteers.

"Nasa takes these detailed pictures but there is a lot of noise out there from stars and other things and we need to write code that can find patterns in the data," said Zooniverse team member Robert Simpson.

"This is not necessarily Nasa's area of expertise. It is a technology problem rather than a space problem."

He thinks that increasingly citizen scientists can contribute to important scientific discoveries and breakthroughs.

"Computers don't have curiosity. People often find things in the data that computers can't," he told the BBC.

"We are creating these huge data sets but we don't have enough scientists to analyse them," he added.

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