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Wanna Be A Rock Star? NASA Needs Help Tracking Asteroids

Actor Bruce Willis appears on the surface of an asteroid in a scene from the movie

It won't be quite like Bruce Willis in Armageddon, but maybe you'll feel just as much a hero.

The White House and NASA are seeking the public's help in hunting for asteroids that could someday smash into Earth. They're also looking for a perfect space rock to capture so that astronauts could go there and study it.

The crowdsourcing effort announced Tuesday is an extension of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program, which was created to "coordinate NASA-sponsored efforts to detect, track and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that could approach the Earth.

"This is really a call to action to find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them," NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told The Washington Post.

The newspaper adds:

"Citing planetary defense, the administration has decided that the search for killer rocks in space should be the latest in a series of 'Grand Challenges,' in which the government sets an ambitious goal, helps create public-private partnerships and sometimes offers prize money for innovative ideas."

Garver said in a statement that while "95 percent of the large asteroids near the Earth's orbit" have been found, the space agency needs help tracking the smaller ones.

NASA, according to the Post, says there are an estimated 25,000 near-Earth asteroids at least 100 meters in diameter, but only a quarter of them have been detected. Congress passed legislation in 2005 requiring NASA to hunt down 90 percent of all "near-Earth objects equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter" by 2020 -- an asteroid of that size is considered big enough to take out a city.

(To see what an asteroid could do if it did hit, check out Purdue University's "Impact Earth" calculator.)

The subject took on a particular urgency after a 55-foot space rock slammed into the ground near Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February, injuring more than 1,000 people and shattering windows all over the city. And there was that massive asteroid that zipped past Earth in February.

As NPR's Elise Hu has reported, scientists told a Senate panel in March that humans currently have no way to stop an asteroid on collision course with Earth without "a few years' " warning. Still, they put the odds of asteroids one kilometer in diameter or larger hitting the planet as a "once every few thousand year" event.

As for actually visiting an asteroid, NASA hopes to accomplish this within a decade through its Asteroid Redirect Mission. Although there are several potential space rocks on NASA's radar, the perfect candidate has yet to be found, which is where the crowdsourcing effort also comes into play.

Of course, whether Congress will fund that mission is another matter.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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