Ever since the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence pioneered really, really distributed computing by distributing a screensaver that would download tiny problems in radio-telescope data analysis personal computers could finish while the user was away, IT has been a kind of volunteer number cruncher for the space program.
Though NASA usually has a good enough budget and odd enough requirements not to have to ask ordinary citizens for help with its calculations, the budget has been shrinking and number of near-Earth space objects has been growing, both to the point that NASA could use a little help.
It just launched a program called " Target Asteroids!" that is designed to recruit amateur astronomers to help find new asteroids and confirm the trajectories of old ones in time for the launch of a probe that will visit and take samples from an asteroid in near Earth orbit.
The probe mission, called OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer), is scheduled to take off during 2016 for a trip to the asteroid 1999 RQ36, which it wil reach sometime in 2019.
" Target Asteroids!" (which has to lose that exclamation point or risk being dismissed as suspicious by both spam filters and skeptical IT-brain filters) will provide data on the target asteroid and those OSIRIS-REx will pass close to so the more detailed data from the probe can be compared to observations available from Earth.
To participate you need a telescope at least 8 inches in diameter, a color-coordinated digital camera and a computer with Internet connection and free astronomy software the project can supply. Or, if you can rent or borrow time on a remote-telescope site, that's OK, too, the project's FAQ said.
Here's a list of some of the near-Earth objects that will be examined, and a little more complete data-source with more information about "minor" planets you might want to keep an eye on.
There's no hint that 199 RQ36 will be a dinosaur killer, or that it will even pass close to the earth as a 1,300-foot-wide rock did in November or another will do next February, passing closer to Earth than some of our own satellites.
There's always a chance of discovering a new asteroid, or realizing that the orbit of an existing one is dangerous. Asteroids have traditionally gotten little attention from astronomers, even aside from the difficulty in finding them. Unlike planets or stars, asteroids are dark, small, and travel in strange orbits that sometimes change as they collide with other objects. They're also tiny by galactic standards, but plenty big enough to cause catastrophic destruction on Earth.
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