An artist's conception shows a robotic probe, powered by a solar electric propulsion system, closing in to corral an asteroid. NASA is aiming to send out such a probe in 2017.
NASA's latest "Grand Challenge" is a biggie: Can you think of better ways to find potentially threatening near-Earth asteroids and do something about those threats? Your ideas could become part of the space agency's vision for the next decade.
The Asteroid Grand Challenge was announced on Tuesday at NASA Headquarters in Washington, but a lot of the details still have to be filled in. For instance, what are the specific tasks to be covered by the challenge? How much money will it take to stimulate the required innovations? Over the next month, NASA is gathering ideas under the terms of a request for information, with the aim of setting up a game plan for the years ahead.
"The purpose of the Grand Challenge is a call to action to continue the awareness around the issue of asteroid threats," Jason Kessler, NASA's program executive for the Asteroid Grand Challenge, told NBC News.
The program complements NASA's initiative to identify and bring back an asteroid so that astronauts can study it in the vicinity of the moon. It also meshes with NASA's long-running program to identify near-Earth asteroids.
"NASA already is working to find asteroids that might be a threat to our planet, and while we have found 95 percent of the large asteroids near the Earth's orbit, we need to find all those that might be a threat to Earth," NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said in an agency news release. "This Grand Challenge is focused on detecting and characterizing asteroids and learning how to deal with potential threats. We will also harness public engagement, open innovation and citizen science to help solve this global problem."
All this interest in asteroids got an extra jolt in February when a meteor blast sent a shock wave sweeping over Siberia, injuring more than 1,000 people. The 55-foot-wide (17-meter-wide) space rock behind that flare-up was relatively small, as space threats go, but even somewhat larger rocks are difficult to detect in advance using current tools. The Grand Challenge is meant to stimulate the development of new tools and techniques, Kessler said.
For instance, the program might encourage the development of nanosatellites equipped with expandable pop-out mirrors that could do a better job of detecting dim asteroids. It could offer prizes for improving the software that models an asteroid's shape. Or it could establish school observation networks to bring the power of crowdsourcing to asteroid detection.
"I guarantee you there's a number of great ideas out there that I'd never come up with," Kessler said. "We're being very deliberate in not saying 'this is the way it's going to be,' except to say this is how it's going to be to promote, engage and solicit ideas from the myriad number of great thinkers."
An animation traces NASA's plan to capture a small near-Earth asteroid using a robotic probe, and bring it back to the vicinity of the moon for study by astronauts. Credit: NASA via SpaceRef
The program is being supported with funds that are being set aside for asteroid detection, but it's too early to estimate how much money the Grand Challenge would get, Kessler said.
The Obama administration has proposed spending $47 million over the next fiscal year on the entire asteroid detection effort, with $7 million of that to be used specifically to prepare for the asteroid-grabbing mission and the Asteroid Grand Challenge. The current plan calls for a robotic probe to be sent out toward an asteroid in 2017, so that it can be brought back for study by astronauts around 2021. Although the target asteroid hasn't yet been identified, NASA has said it would be in the range of 7 to 10 meters wide. There's a chance that the probe might break off a piece of a bigger asteroid and bring it back as an alternative.
Update for 10:20 p.m. ET June 18: The B612 Foundation has been working for years to raise awareness on the asteroid threat, and is also trying to raise money for an asteroid-hunting space telescope. Former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, the foundation's CEO, issued this statement relating to NASA's Grand Challenge:
"This morning, the White House and NASA announced an Asteroid Grand Challenge, 'focused on finding all asteroid threats to human populations and knowing what to do with them.' This directly mirrors the mission of the non-profit private B612 Foundation and our Sentinel Mission, and we strongly applaud NASA and the Obama administration for their leadership in raising the visibility of this critical issue and for establishing detection of asteroids as a national priority. The administration has called for a team 'of the best and brightest' working on this together, and we look forward to increased collaboration and partnership.
"There are one million asteroids with the potential to impact Earth with energy large enough to obliterate any major city. We believe that the goal must be to find these one million asteroids — anything less, in our opinion, would not meet the intent of this Grand Challenge."
More about asteroids:
- Asteroid perils and profits draw interest
- Amateurs boost hunt for asteroids
- Cosmic Log archive on asteroids
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.