November 26, 2013
NASA and startup Planetary Resources, Inc. have formed the first public/private partnership under the space agency’s Asteroid Grand Challenge (AGC) initiative to accelerate the search for near-Earth objects (NEOs) that pose a collision threat by using government sky surveys and crowdsourced algorithms.
The Solar System’s population of known asteroids is 620,000, but that is estimated to be less than 1% of the actual total.
Under a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement, asteroid mining company Planetary Resources will attempt to increase the total by guiding future crowdsourcing challenges and extending the online availability of NASA-funded sky survey data. NASA will develop and manage the competitions as well as assess the value of the most promising algorithm submissions.
The initial competition, based on the Asteroid Zoo platform from Planetary Resources and Zooniverse, is planned for early 2014.
The joint effort was announced during NASA’s Asteroid Initiative Idea Synthesis workshop hosted by the NASA-funded Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston last week. The workshop drew 138 invitation-only participants to elaborate on 96 responses to a June Request for Information from NASA to assist the space agency in shaping the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) and Asteroid Grand Challenge (ARC). They represent a dual-front initiative to resume U.S. human deep-space exploration while establishing and demonstrating asteroid-deflection capabilities.
The agency is seeking congressional approval to launch a robotic mission in 2018 to capture and maneuver a 5- to 10-meter asteroid into lunar orbit. The first piloted test flight of NASA’s Orion crew exploration vehicle and Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket would deliver two astronauts to the lunar-orbiting asteroid, perhaps as soon as 2021.
Technologies drawn from the two ventures would set the stage for a human Mars mission in the mid-2030s, while expanding asteroid awareness using “citizen science” and developing deflection capabilities.
“This partnership uses NASA resources in innovative ways,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s near-Earth object program executive.
After its 2009 founding, Planetary Resources carried out a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $1.5 million from 18,000 contributors to finance Arkyd, a space telescope project. The private observatory will search for near Earth asteroids rich in water, precious metals and potentially other resources that could fuel a space economy. The company’s investors include Google CEO Larry Page and executive chair Eric Schmidt.