NASA invites you to hack space!


rocketman 2,500 years ago, the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes figured out the world was round and accurately determined its size.

CPU available for computing project: None.

RAM: Whatever capacity the guy had without caffeinated beverages.

He did it with observation of solar-coverage discrepancies between his home town along the Gulf of Sidra (now Libya) and Alexandria on a particular day of the year.

Can you do better than a pre-digital librarian from the great Library of Alexandria? Can you build an app that can determine the Earth’s size?

NASA, along with citizens and organizations around the world, is inviting all to try.

The event, the International Space Apps Challenge, takes place between 21–22 April 2012 and involves citizens on all continents, as well as astronauts on the International Space Station, attempting to solve current challenges of space exploration and social need.

Screengrab of International Space Apps Challenge

It’s being run as a codeathon: an event that brings together citizens interested in collaborating on the development solutions that address critical challenges. Here’s how the organisers describe it:

A codeathon celebrates software development in its most positive context—using minimal resources and maximum brainpower to create outside-the-box solutions in response to interesting problems. Codeathons are technology development marathons, drawing on the talents and initiative of the best and the brightest software developers, engineers, designers and technologists from around the world, who volunteer their time to respond to real-world problems with solutions than can have immediate impact.

Earth in handsThey’re looking for a broad range of skills: engineers, technologists, scientists, designers, artists, educators, students, and entrepreneurs—anyone, they say, who has “a passion for changing the world” and who’s willing to contribute.

According to the site, the Earth-measuring challenge (one of many) is to build an app that will:

  • Provide information on how to make a noontime observation of the Sun’s location in the sky
  • Contain a provision that would allow the user to post that observation for sharing with others
  • Perform the circumference calculation for the user using their observation and another selected from the posted list by the user
  • Provide an engaging demonstration of practical geometry in action via making observations collaboratively with a person/group the user has likely never met.

President Obama and other heads of state endorsed the principles of the codeathon on 20 September 2011.

The principles in question are those of the Open Government Partnership—a new multilateral initiative to promote transparency, participation and collaboration between governments and citizens. Since then, 52 countries have joined.

Events will be held in locations including San Francisco, US; Tokyo, Japan; Melbourne and Canberra, Australia; Jakarta, Indonesia; Exeter and Oxford, UK; Nairobi, Kenya; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and McMurdo Station, Antarctica; and the International Space Station.

At the events, teams focus on solving a particular challenge, competing with other teams around the world to use publicly available space and data to design innovative solutions to a pre-determined series of global challenges.

The challenges are listed on this page. Here are brief synopses for a few more examples:

  • Open Data Challenge – Kepler: Help NASA either a) make Kepler data more accessible or b) create something amazing with it. It could be an app that better visualizes the data, an interface that presents the data in a new way, an infographic that helps understand the data in a new way, or more.
  • Handheld Hardware for Citizen Science: Develop plug-in hardware that can be used for any one of NASA’s citizen science missions, such as the creation of a spectrometer, photometer, or other instrumentation.
  • NASA Planetary Data System Interface: Develop a tool for citizen scientists, educators, and students to access NASA’s Planetary Data System data sets.
  • HTML5 App to access NASA Earth Observations website: Develop a stand-alone HTLM5 tablet app that would reach a large number of citizen scientists using Earth Science Data from the NASA Earth Observations (NEO) website.

The codeathon is a great, worthy, productive use of hacker talent.

There’s an added bonus in this case: It won’t result in jail time!

Rocket Man image courtesy of Shuttershock
International Space Apps Challenge screenshot courtesy of
Earth in hand image courtesy of Shuttershock