CBSN

​Become an asteroid hunter for NASA

Catalina Sky Survey, University of Arizona

"Protecting the Earth from the threat of asteroid impacts means first knowing where they are."

That's the opening statement on the site where you can download NASA's new computer app that turns astronomy enthusiasts into citizen scientists on the hunt for the next flying space rock likely to smash into our planet.

The app, announced Sunday at the South by Southwest music and tech festival in Austin, Texas, works on the back on an algorithm developed as part of NASA's Asteroid Grand Challenge competition, launched at last year's festival. The algorithm takes images of space and homes in on spots that are likely to be asteroids.

It's an updated version of the system that astronomers have been using to find asteroids since the 1930s. The basic idea is to take images of the same place in the sky and look for star-like objects that move between one frame and the next. But there are so many pictures from so many telescopes nowadays that it's too much data for humans to handle on their own. The algorithm developed enables a computer to narrow down the images to those that appear to have captured an asteroid candidate.

Users can grab telescope images of the night sky online from places like the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., or the Catalina Sky Survey in Tucson, Ariz., and run them through the app on their desktop or laptop, letting the algorithm sift through and look for any bright spot that appears to be moving.

They can also upload their own images from their own telescopes, to see if they've captured a potential asteroid themselves.

"This increase in knowledge will help assess more quickly which asteroids are potential threats, human destinations or resource rich," said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer at Planetary Resources, in a statement.

That way we'll have a better chance of spotting and redirecting a potentially hazardous projectiles -- like the meteor that got by astronomers and crashed into Russia in a fiery blaze in 2013 -- or finding a good rock to land on.

The app is free to download for Windows and Apple machines.

  • Amanda Schupak

    Amanda Schupak is the science and technology editor at CBSNews.com