Calgary team shoots to NASA competition finals with app that tracks rogue asteroids

Three University of Calgary engineering students have created an app that allows anyone to track rogue asteroids and comets, and a competition put on by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), likes what they see.

Parnia Shokri, Amin Zadeh and Bahareh Yekkehkhany are team Pixel Heroes and their software will be judged later this month as part of the NASA International Space Apps Challenge.

Shokri says the idea actually goes back about 25 years.

“Twenty five years ago, a comet collided with Jupiter,” Shokri told The Homestretch.

Parnia Shokri, left, Amin Zadeh and Bahareh Yekkehkhany are team Pixel Heroes. Their app that tracks asteroids and comets, made it to the finals of the NASA International Space Apps Challenge. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

“It changed Jupiter’s atmosphere for several days. The same thing happening to Earth could be a catastrophic event. At the time, scientists were trying to find these kinds of objects to protect the Earth.”

And that is the goal of their app.

“We designed a software based on computer-vision algorithms to find these objects in images. It’s open source and user friendly. There’s a graphical user interface. With just one click people can load a data set and detect asteroids and comets,” she said.

This is the graphic interface of the team’s app. (Submitted by Parnia Shokri)

The results, Shokri said, could have implications far greater than what the team originally envisioned.

“If we can detect these kinds of objects, scientists can analyze them chemically and learn more about how the solar system was formed,” Shokri said.

A 15-minute presentation with question-and-answer period qualified the group for the finals, against a handful of teams across Canada, she said.

“The Canadian Space Agency and NASA can use it, but also the public.”