Monday, March 18, 2013

Toronto Space Apps Challenge: Technology Within Reach

     by Brian Orlotti

This coming April, a unique contest sponsored by NASA will take place at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto.

On the weekend of April 19th - 21st, one hundred and fifty developers, designers, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs will take a stab at thirty NASA-designed challenges as part of the Toronto International Space Apps Challenge, a ‘hackathon’ that is part of the NASA International Space Apps Challenge.

This is NASA's second space apps challenge and  over seventy five cities around the world will take part in the event. Toronto sponsors include the ROM, the Phuse (an advertising and design agency), the London, Ontario based Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX), the HackerNest collective (one of Canada's largest technical meet-ups), GitHub (which provides collaboration, review, and code management for open source and private development projects), and the Canadian Alumni of the International Space University (CAISU).

Space enthusiasts from a variety of organizations including web development houses, aerospace firms, and space scientists will form teams and be given 48 hours to build prototypes for presentation by weekend’s end. The challenges are divided into four categories: software, open hardware, citizen science, and data visualization. While building their solutions, teams are free to draw on NASA's extensive inventory of spacecraft, science data, and even games and space exploration apps for information (and inspiration).

Last year’s Space Apps Challenge produced a rich diversity of innovation, which included:
  • BitHarvester - A data acquisition and control system for remote renewable energy systems developed by a team at the University of Nairobi. BitHarvester was initially built to monitor and control distant wind turbines in rural Kenya and utilizes the worldwide short message service (SMS) protocol, the same protocol used to send text messages over global cell networks, to harness existing infrastructure at minimal cost.

  • Planet Hopper – A web app built at last year’s Space Apps Challenge by a team in Oxford, UK. Planet Hopper is aimed at students and non-scientists and takes data from the NASA Exoplanet Archive (which collects data on recent and confirmed extra-solar planetary discoveries), then displays it in a visual and fun way. Through a simple interface, you select a star using the system finder and then view its planets. You can make comparisons with each planet to our own. For example, you can find out how long it would take to travel there, how old you would be if you were born there, or how high you could jump if you were standing on the planet’s surface.

  • The Pineapple Project – A toolset that uses existing agricultural, climate and topography data to match groups and individuals in rural areas to tropical crops that are appropriate to cultivate in their specific region. These tools include a website, a mobile app, and a SMS text messaging capability that allows users to receive a planting recommendation based on their location.

This year’s Space Apps Challenge comes at a nexus of history for the Canadian space sector. The past few months have seen such milestones as the release of the long-awaited Aerospace Review (also known as the Emerson Report), the launch of four innovative Canadian satellites (as described in the February 25th, 2013 blog post on "the Real Winners of the PSLV-20 Rocket Launch"), Chris Hadfield becoming the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station (ISS) and a key gathering of space business leaders at the 2013 CSCA National Conference.

It has also seen continuing economic difficulties, and government space activity faced with an increasingly uncertain future. With government activity in decline and the private sector stepping in to fill the void, events like the Space Apps Challenge may well be the crucible in which the future is forged.
"If man realizes technology is within reach, he achieves it. Like its damn near instinctive," according to Motoko Kusanagi, a charactor in the 1995 Japanese anime, Ghost in the Shell.

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