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NASA comes down to earth to find amateur asteroid hunters

PHOENIX — Only a few people ever get the chance to go into space, but that does not mean average Joes are useless to NASA.

The space agency announced this week it has opened up a new software program aimed at letting anyone help NASA discover asteroids.

“What we’re looking for are folks to take images of the night sky and now they have an easy software application that enables those images to be searched for asteroids,” said Jason Kessler, program executive with NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge.

The software, developed by private software engineers, works by comparing different images of the same part of the night sky to spot changes that could signify an asteroid, Kessler said.

The program was first developed using images from the University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey and data provided by the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Since the program’s introduction, there has been a 15 percent increase positive identification of new asteroids. Kessler said opening the software up to the public is expected to continue increasing that rate.

Kessler said people simply have to download the software to their computer and then begin uploading their own images of the night sky.

Discovering new asteroids is an important study said Kessler and NASA is hoping to be able to study parts of the night sky from all areas of the globe, particularly those that might be difficult or costly for NASA researchers to get to.

“One only needs to think back to February 2013 and remember the Chelyabinsk air burst that happened in Chelyabinsk Russia — it put a thousand people in the hospital and caused $40 million in damage — to remember that we have a very busy neighborhood,” Kessler said.

Participants can even be part of the naming process, he said.

The software is available for free at NASA.gov.