NASA wants you!

Well, probably not you, the person reading this—unless you know how to code—but the point is that NASA is increasingly asking for help from (ordinary) people outside of its organization. I have posted previously about the commercialization of the space industry, and competitions such as the one NASA has just started are one aspect of this. Similar in motive to the X Prize Foundation (which includes the Google Lunar XPRIZE that some Penn State students are taking part in), NASA is relying on monetary incentive and competition as a way to produce results. In opening their contest to anyone, furthermore, NASA is increasing the brainpower contributing to this issue.

NASA is launching an Asteroid Data Hunting contest series that will take place over the next six months, with prizes totaling $35,000. In this case, they are looking for a better code to identify asteroids that might crash into Earth. (There are more specifics on what exactly they’re looking for in a code; feel free to do more research if you’re interested.) Come up with such an algorithm, and you will be rewarded.

This contest series is only the first of several to come in NASA “Asteroid Grand Challenge,” so expect more challenges (and prizes) to be made public soon.

A BBC article about NASA’s contest mentions a site called Zooniverse, which is a leading online platform for “citizen scientists.” Virtually anybody can go online and help out with different projects. I checked out the website, and it’s actually really cool. The projects are diverse, and range from sorting sunspots to analyzing cancer cells (which is what I did—give it a try!). The nice thing is that there’s not a minimum time commitment. You can go on and work through 5 minutes of data and be done, or you can be much more involved if you want. A member of Zooniverse, Robert Simpson, made some pretty good points about this topic. He explains, “Computers don’t have curiosity. People often find things in the data that computers can’t.” Furthermore, because “We are creating these huge data sets but we don’t have enough scientists to analyse them,” creating forums and competitions for everyday citizens who are passionate about science is beneficial to everyone.

Looking back on the more extreme competitions (rather than an online platform like Zooniverse), what are your thoughts? Are they worthwhile for the companies sponsoring them? How about for the participants? (Keep in mind the input to output ratio. The amount of money the winning team of the Lunar XPRIZE will spend, for example, will definitely be more than the amount of money they win—and that’s only looking at the winning team.)

In other news, the three members of Expedition 37/38 safely landed in Kazakhstan on March 10th after spending six months aboard the International Space Station. Welcome home!

3 thoughts on “NASA wants you!

  1. I have heard of companies doing things like this before and I thought it was cool. I always assumed the knowledge required to help out/participate was out of my field of depth. Hearing this I might be able to get involved, which would be awesome! I know the United State’s government hosts a hacking competition to find people to recruit (A few years ago the winner hacked the scoring system to give himself the most points, which in hacking competition is apparently not against the rules). I am happy to hear more companies/organizations are experimenting with this. On a side note, when I was in Taco Bell on Monday they had a poster up supporting the Penn State Google Lunar XPrize.

  2. The idea of ordinary people coming together for monumental works has always fascinated me, but I was entirely unaware of these projects! The scope and magnitude to which anyone can contribute to scientific advancement is very exciting, and I will certainly check out that Zooniverse site. I am a research assistant here with the German department and I can attest to the time commitment that comes with even simple data coding. With a volunteer force of thousands, I can only imagine the progress we could make together. Terrific post, this is fascinating stuff.

  3. Imagine being able to say “I worked at NASA”? That would be pretty awesome. Seriously, though, I think it is awesome that NASA is looking towards a broader spectrum of people to wok for them, as space is something that interests so many people who may have thought that they don’t have what it takes to work in the field. Its funny, too, that you wrote an article on this, because I know someone who is just graduating this semester, and found out that she had been offered a position with NASA starting this summer!

Leave a Reply