Lunar and Planetary Institute
Lunar and Planetary Institute



Planetary Society Offers $50,000 for Asteroid Tagging Designs

Aphophis Mission Design Competition

December 14, 2006

The Planetary Society is launching the Apophis Mission Design Competition, which invites participants to submit designs for a mission to rendezvous with and “tag” a potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroid.  Tagging may be necessary to track an asteroid accurately enough to determine whether it will impact the Earth, and thus help facilitate the decision whether to mount a deflection mission to alter its orbit.

Apophis is an approximately 400 meter  Near Earth Object (NEO), which will come closer to the Earth in 2029 than the orbit of our geostationary satellites.  On that pass, the asteroid will be gravitationally perturbed to an unknown orbit, one that could cause it to hit the Earth in 2036.   

"While the odds are very slim that this particular asteroid will hit Earth in 30 years, they are not zero, and Apophis and other NEOs represent threats that need to be addressed" said Rusty Schweickart, Apollo astronaut, head of the Association for Space Explorers NEO committee,.  

Bruce Betts, The Planetary Society's Director of Projects said, "With this competition, we hope to not only generate creative thinking about tagging Apophis, but more generally to stimulate greater awareness of the broader Near Earth Object threat."

Very precise tracking may be needed to determine the probability of a collision in 2036, and it may turn out that such precise tracking will require “tagging” the asteroid, perhaps with a beacon — for example, a transponder or reflector, or perhaps another way.  Exactly how an asteroid could best be tagged is not yet known, nor is it obvious. “That is the point of the competition,” added Betts.  

The Planetary Society is "betting" $50,000 that someone will devise an innovative solution to the problem.  In cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), The Planetary Society is conducting a competition to design a mission that could tag a potentially dangerous asteroid such as Apophis.  

The prize money was contributed and competition made possible by Daniel Geraci, a member of the Planetary Society Board of Directors, together with donations from Planetary Society members around the world. Geraci stated, “The time scale may be unknown, but the danger of a Near Earth Object impact is very real.   We need to spur the space community and indeed all people into thinking about technical solutions and being aware of the possibilities.” 

The purpose of the competition is to gather a wide-ranging selection of entries that would serve as a creative starting point for a potential future mission to tag a hazardous NEO, sponsored by one or more of the world's space agencies, hopefully in a cooperative venture.  The Society will present the winning entries to the world’s major  space agencies, and the findings of the competition will be presented at relevant scientific and engineering conferences.

In 2029 if Apophis passes through a several hundred-meter wide “keyhole,” it will impact the Earth in 2036.  Current estimates rate the probability of impact as very low, but the mission design sought is to be general enough to apply to other potential dangerous cases that might be discovered.  The competition design scenario asks participants to imagine that Earth-based observations of Apophis made over the coming years are not sufficient to know whether the asteroid will or will not pass through the 2029 keyhole, and that a better orbit determination is needed to know if a deflection mission is required.  Tagging an asteroid with a device on or near it would enable the necessary precision tracking.  Apophis is being used as an example for the purposes of the competition, to enable design of a specific example of a broader type of mission to any potentially dangerous asteroid.  

The competition requires that the tagging mission should be designed to return information fast enough so that by the year 2017 space agencies could determine whether they need to send a mission to deflect the asteroid from the keyhole.  The following mission aspects are the primary focus of the competition:

The competition focuses on the portions of the mission near the asteroid.  For complete Apophis rules, please visit Aphophis Mission Design Competion at The Planetary Society's Web site.

Teams or individuals intending to submit a proposal should submit a Notice of Intent to Propose by February 15, 2007.  The deadline for proposals is August 31, 2007.  

The Apophis Mission Design Competition is open to anyone from any country.  Proposals may be submitted by individuals or teams.  The competition is open to teams from academia and industry as well as student groups and private groups, and to government groups or individuals not using government salary to support their participation in the Contest (see rules for details).

$50,000 in prize money will be awarded.  The judges will determine how to distribute the award money among one or more prize winners.   At least $25,000 will be awarded to the first prize winner.  A prize of at least $5,000 is reserved for the best submission received from a student team (who is not precluded from winning the first prize), in which all substantive work was performed by current students (high school, undergraduate, or graduate), with no more than two faculty advisors.  Any remaining prize money may be distributed as honorable mention awards.  

Additionally, the first prize winner, or one member of the first prize winning team, will receive award travel, including transportation, food, and lodging, to attend a future major science or engineering conference to present their results.

The Apophis Mission Design Competition Advisory Committee includes Bruce Betts, Director of Projects, The Planetary Society; Daniel Durda, Planetary Scientist, Southwest Research Institute; Louis Friedman, Executive Director, The Planetary Society; Lewis Peach, Chief Engineer, USRA; Russell “Rusty” Schweickart, Apollo astronaut and Association of Space Explorers NEO Committee Chairman; and Simon “Pete” Worden, Director, NASA Ames Research Center.

Since The Planetary Society's inception in 1980, the organization has donated well over a quarter million dollars to asteroid research, about half of which was awarded through Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants to amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers around the world.   Society-funded programs have yielded several asteroid discoveries.

The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society has inspired millions of people to explore other worlds and seek other life. Today, its international membership makes the non-governmental Planetary Society the largest space interest group in the world.  Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman founded The Planetary Society in 1980.

Web Links:

The Planetary Society                 

Apophis Mission Design Competition

Shoemaker Grants  


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Last updated January 30, 2008