Data is not information. As simple as this may seem, it is difficult for scientists to grasp, accustomed as they are to wade through mountains of data to eventually emerge with a gem of a fact. But scientists are a minority, and most people who land on the Minor Planet Center site through an online search or a link in a news piece about asteroids are regular folks who just want some info, like, are we going to get hit by an asteroid today? Or, how big are these Near Earth Asteroids that I hear might hit us one day? How easy is it to travel to one of these asteroids? And many more we’re yet to hear, I’m sure.
Well, dear asteroid fans, the Minor Planet Center teamed up with a group of volunteers from Oracle, and they have been hard at work over the past few months to bring you their Asteroid Explorers web tool. If you’re impatient, go have a play with it right now:
You can also watch the presentation by the Oracle team at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (home to the Minor Planet Center), starting at 11:30 EDT on June 8 (or watch it later; it’ll be archived):
This journey began early in 2014, when a group of NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge collaborators decided to set up an Asteroid Hackathon using the Minor Planet Center’s newly-created (and still in beta!) webservice. NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge Program Executive, Jason Kessler, planted the seed; the folks at EchoUser organised it and dealt with logistics, the SETI Institute hosted it, and SpaceGAMBIT put up the prize money for the winners. I did my bit to help out with the preparations, but all credit goes to these guys, who made it happen. I also attended the hackathon itself as the asteroid expert and one of the judges. It was great fun! I could tell you all about it, but why not let EchoUser’s Patrick Stern show you with this video recap he made:
Apart from the cash, the winning team would be given support by myself (and the rest of the Minor Planet Center if needed) to finish their project such that it could be incorporated into the Minor Planet Center’s website. It’s been a great, fun, and at times challenging, learning experience for all involved on this side of the Minor Planet Center (special credit and thanks goes to our lead programmer, Mike Rudenko, who’s put in many hours preparing data and the site to host this tool) and we all hope that anyone visiting our site will play with the Asteroid Explorers tool and leave with a little bit of knowledge about asteroids that they wouldn’t have otherwise gained.
I also wish to thank Oracle, who allowed the winning team to set up an Oracle Volunteer project in order to work on Asteroid Explorers.