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December 22, 2006

Want to win $50,000? And save the world?

artist rendering of Apophis

OK, here's the deal. On April 13, 2029, an asteroid the size of a football stadium is going to pass close by the Earth. Really close. Close enough that you'll actually be able to see the thing whizz by with the naked eye, an event that's never happened before in recorded history. The asteroid, known as 99942 Apophis, won't hit the Earth that day, but passing so close to the Earth will alter the asteroid's orbit and there's a tiny (one in several thousand) chance its orbit will be altered in just the exactly wrong way, so that when Apophis comes back seven years later it will smash into the Earth, with horrendous consequences.

The reason we're not completely sure if Apophis will miss us or not on that second pass is because we don't know its orbital course accurately enough. We need a more precise way to monitor its position and direction of travel. And that's where the $50,000 comes in.

The Planetary Society(*) is sponsoring a design contest to see who can come up with the best way to put a radio beacon, radar reflector, or other tracking device onto the asteroid. A device like that could be hugely important...the sooner we know for sure that Apophis is on a collision course, the more time we have to figure out a way to nudge the object out of the way.

Now, just to be clear, the Planetary Society folks aren't overly concerned about Apophis per se, but they feel it would be a good idea to know how to track any future near-Earth asteroid, and the contest is a great way to jump-start creative thinking about the problem.

The Planetary Society is conducting this competition in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, and other agencies. It's open to anyone...individuals, private groups, companies, universities, etc.

Want to take a crack at maybe saving the world? Here are the full rules. You have to declare your intention to compete by March 1st, proposals are due by August 31.

(*) I'm a proud member of, and contributer to, the Planetary Society.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at December 22, 2006 04:47 PM