If you’ve ever dreamed of saving the world from an impending asteroid collision, and you’ve got a better solution than hiring Bruce Willis to bomb the asteroid to smithereens, we’ve got the competition for you.
On April 12 and 13, during NASA’s third annual Space Apps Challenge, hundreds of scientists and software engineers joined together in a 48-hour hackathon to come up with solutions to vexing global and interstellar problems. NASA comes up with the puzzlers for the event, and anybody with the engineering chops to work on them is invited to try. Teams on six continents and at over a hundred locations work on the problems.
In total, there were 40 challenges, such as this one in the category of asteroids: “Create an open source network of quick-response robotic telescopes that would enable fast follow-up observations of potentially-threatening asteroids.” Other tasks included trying to make a “Track that Wetland” app — allowing citizen scientists to record observations and data on the wetlands in their communities — and creating a design for a greenhouse that NASA could use to keep visitors on the moon or Mars stocked with fresh produce.
Each year, the challenges result in the creation of useful apps. Last year, software engineer James Wanga’s team won the Best Hardware Prize for building the prototype of an asteroid mapper. Wanga told Denise Chow of Space.com, “There’s a spirit that infects everyone when we realize all these people around the world are working on the same thing.”
After participating in the NASA Challenge, Wanga and three colleagues started the company Go Lab, which builds tiny satellites for all sorts of uses. Wanga and Co. were at it again this year, coding all weekend long at the Manhattan NASA Space Apps Challenge location in an effort to build a network that could one day allow far-flung astronauts to communicate in space.
“We all understand here that we’re trying to change the world,” Wanga told Chow. “This is the beginning of the space tech boom, and the people here right now are the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of space tech start-ups.”