Planetary Society Names Winners of $50,000 Asteroid Tagging Competition

For Immediate Release
February 26, 2008

Mat Kaplan
Email: [email protected]
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

How do you tag and track an asteroid that might be on a collision course with Earth? The first place winners of The Planetary Society's $50,000 Apophis Mission Design Competition presented their innovative solutions at a press conference today in Pasadena, California.

First place went to the team led by SpaceWorks Engineering, Inc. of Atlanta, Georgia in conjunction with SpaceDev, Inc., Poway, California for their mission, entitled Foresight. Mark G. Schaffer served as Principal Investigator. The Foresight team takes home $25,000 in prize money.

The Georgia Institute of Technology, also coincidentally in Atlanta, Georgia, took first place in the student category, winning $5,000. Jonathan Sharma, a student in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, was Principal Investigator for a mission design entitled Pharos.

”We are very happy that this competition inspired innovative designs to solve an important problem that could affect life on Earth—as the dinosaurs learned the hard way,” said Planetary Society Director of Projects Bruce Betts. “We hope the winning entries will catalyze the world’s space agencies to move ahead with designs and missions to protect Earth from potentially dangerous asteroids and comets.”

The Apophis Mission Design Competition invited participants to compete for $50,000 in prizes by designing a mission to rendezvous with and "tag" a potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroid. Tagging would allow scientists to track an asteroid accurately enough to determine whether it will impact Earth, thus helping governments decide whether to mount a deflection mission to alter its orbit.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) co-sponsored The Planetary Society’s competition and will review the best mission designs offered. The winning designs will also be presented by The Planetary Society to other world space agencies.

The near-Earth asteroid, Apophis, was used as the target for the mission design because it will come closer to Earth in 2029 than the orbit of our geostationary satellites. (That’s close enough to be visible to the naked eye.) If it passes through a small “keyhole” as it travels by Earth, its trajectory could be diverted so that it will impact Earth in 2036. Current estimates do rate the probability of such an impact as very low.

To keep mission costs low, the winning design, Foresight, proposes a simple orbiter with only two instruments and a radio beacon at a cost of $137.2 million. The spacecraft would launch aboard a Minotaur IV, leaving Earth sometime between 2012 and 2014, to arrive at Apophis five to ten months later. It would then rendezvous with, observe, and track the asteroid.

Foresight would orbit the asteroid to gather data with a multi-spectral imager for one month. It would then leave orbit and fly in formation with Apophis around the Sun at a range of two kilometers (1.2 miles). The spacecraft would use laser ranging to the asteroid and radio tracking from Earth for ten months to accurately determine the asteroid’s orbit and how it might change.

Pharos, the winning student entry, would be an orbiter with four science instruments (a multi-spectral imager, near-infrared spectrometer, laser rangefinder, and magnetometer) that would rendezvous with and track Apophis. Earth-based tracking of the spacecraft would then allow precise tracking of the asteroid. The Pharos spacecraft would also carry four instrumented probes that it would launch individually over the course of two weeks. Accelerometers and temperature sensors on the probes would measure the seismic effects of successive probe impacts, a creative way to explore the interior structure and dynamics of the asteroid.

The competition received 37 mission proposals from 20 countries on 6 continents. If Earth were ever going to mount a defense against a dangerous asteroid, international cooperation would be vital in protecting the planet. That spirit of international cooperation was exemplified by the second and third place teams.

Second place, for $10.000, went to a European team led by Deimos Space S.L. of Madrid, Spain, in cooperation with EADS Astrium, Friedrichshafen, Germany; University of Stuttgart, Germany; and Universitá di Pisa, Italy. Juan L. Cano was Principal Investigator.

Another European team took home $5,000 for third place. Their team lead was EADS Astrium Ltd, United Kingdom, in conjunction with EADS Astrium SAS, France; IASF-Roma, INAF, Rome, Italy; Open University, UK; Rheinisches Institut für Umweltforschung, Germany; Royal Observatory of Belgium; and Telespazio, Italy. The Principal Investigator was Paolo D'Arrigo.

Two teams tied for second place in the Student Category: Monash University, Clayton Campus, Australia, with Dilani Kahawala as Principal Investigator; and University of Michigan, with Jeremy Hollander as Principal Investigator. Each second place team won $2,000. A team from Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, under the leadership of Peter Weiss, received an honorable mention and $1,000 for the most innovative student proposal.

The Apophis Mission Design Competition is part of the Society's year-long focus on Target Earth to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska event, when an exploding asteroid or comet leveled 2,000 square kilometers of Siberian forest in June1908. Target Earth will focus on a variety of Near-Earth Object (NEO) projects supported by The Planetary Society, which include the Apophis Mission Design Competition, the Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants, science and exploration mission advocacy, and a one-hour HD TV “Daily Planet” special on asteroids being produced by Discovery Canada.

The $50,000 in prize money was contributed by The Planetary Society's Chairman of the Board, Dan Geraci. Additional funding to run the competition was provided by Planetary Society members around the world.

Today's press conference at Planetary Society headquarters in Pasadena featured Geraci, Betts, Planetary Society Executive Director Louis Friedman, and representatives of both first place teams.

In addition to NASA and ESA, The Planetary Society conducted the Apophis Mission Design Competition in cooperation with the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). 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.

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.

About The Planetary Society

With a global community of more than 2 million space enthusiasts, The Planetary Society is the world’s largest and most influential space advocacy organization. Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman and today led by CEO Bill Nye, we empower the public to take a meaningful role in advancing space exploration through advocacy, education outreach, scientific innovation, and global collaboration. Together with our members and supporters, we’re on a mission to explore worlds, find life off Earth, and protect our planet from dangerous asteroids. To learn more, visit