Georgia Team Wins Contest to Track Killer Asteroid

A boxy spacecraft and its Georgia-based design team are $25,000 richer after winning an international competition to devise the best plan for tracking a space rock that will swing past Earth twice in the next 30 years.

The small Foresight spacecraft designed by engineers in Georgia and California won first place on Tuesday in the Planetary Society's Apophis Mission Design Competition, which challenged contenders to come up with a cost-effective way of launching a watch dog-like probe to asteroid 99942 Apophis.

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The asteroid — a space rock between 690 and 1080 feet (210 and 330 meters) wide — is expected to pass by Earth at a distance of about 18,300 miles (29,470 km) on its first pass in 2029, then swing further out at about 30 million miles (47.9 million kilometers) on the second approach in 2036, asteroid researchers have said.

But perturbations in Apophis' orbit between now and then could alter the space rock's course, prompting the need for further observations to ensure it does not pose an impact risk to Earth, they added.

To track Apophis with Foresight, engineers at Atlanta-based SpaceWorks Engineering, Inc. and Poway, Calif.'s SpaceDev drew up plans for a $137.2 million-mission that would launch the probe atop an Orbital Sciences Minotaur 4 rocket.

According to the plan, the rocket would launch between 2012 and 2014, with Foresight entering orbit around Apophis five and 10 months later.

The probe would then fly in formation with the asteroid, hovering about 1.2 miles (2 km) above its surface as the space rock circled the sun.

Shaped like a cube capped with stubby solar panels, the 485-pound (220-kg) spacecraft measures about 34 inches (85 cm) in width and height, and sports a length of about 26 inches (70 cm) in length.

It is designed to carry an off-the-shelf radio beacon for tracking, as well as a multi-spectrum imager and laser altimeter to study Apophis.

"We applaud the innovative approach that the Planetary Society took toward soliciting ideas and solutions to this potential threat," said SpaceWorks Engineering CEO John Olds in a statement. "An open, prize-based competition was the perfect opportunity for a small, independent firm such as ours to showcase our capabilities."

Competitors from 20 different countries submitted 37 different Apophis-tracking proposals to vie for a total of $50,000 in prize money from the Pasadena, Calif.-based Planetary Society.

The contest is part of the society's year-long Target Earth program highlighting the 100th anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska space rock explosion over Russia's Siberian forest.

Tuesday's awards came less than a month after an asteroid swung within 334,000 miles (537,500 kilometers) of Earth on Jan. 29.

European teams based in Spain and France took home second and third place prizes of $10,000 and $5,000, respectively.

Pharos, a spacecraft designed by engineering students at the Georgia Institute of Technology, won $5,000 in the Apophis contest's $10,000 student competition, with a proposal for an orbiter laden with four probes that could be launched into the asteroid to study its interior.

Three other student teams shared the remaining prize money.

Planetary Society board chairman Dan Geraci contributed the total cash purse for the Apophis contest, which was held with cooperation from NASA, the European Space Agency and other organizations.

"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 Bruce Betts, the Planetary Society's director of projects, referring to the massive impact 65 million years ago. "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."

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