NASA hands over the reins to amateur asteroid hunters

20th March 2015
Barney Scott

Thanks to NASA’s Asteroid Data Hunter contest, the public can play with a software application that has the potential to increase the number of new asteroids discovered. The application is based on an algorithm which proved a 15% increase in positively identifying asteroids between Mars and Jupiter during testing. You don’t have to be a NASA scientist to work the application - it can be used by amateur astronomers and citizen scientists.

At the South by Southwest Festival in Texas, NASA representatives discussed how citizen scientists have made a different in asteroid hunting. They also announced the release of a desktop software application based on the contest algorithm that analyses images for potential asteroids.

Traditionally, astronomers find asteroids by taking images of the same place in the sky and looking for star-like objects to move between frames.

The approach has been used since before Pluto was discovered in 1930, but now that more telescopes are scanning the sky, the enormous volume of data makes it impossible for astronomers to verify each detection by hand. 

This algorithm gives astronomers the ability to use computers to autonomously and rapidly check the images and determine which objects are suitable for follow up. The result is the ability to find more asteroids than previously possible.

The desktop software application is free and can be used on any basic desktop or laptop computer so that amateur astronomers can take images from their telescopes and analyse them.

The application will tell the user whether a matching asteroid record exists and offer a way to report findings to the Minor Planet Center, which then confirms and archives new discoveries.

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