The International Space Apps Challenge exists to bring together diverse communities around the world, and enable them to develop meaningful solutions that advance space technology and better our world. It benefits solvers and sponsors alike if we can engage a diverse set of communities, allow for overlap between those communities, and help them focus on what work needs to be done. Toward that goal, we proudly introduce the four main categories of challenges for the event. We hope they grab the attention of skillful people around the world, provide balance and focus to the challenges, and still allow unexpected successes to emerge.
Again, these categories are not meant to discourage in any way the incredible serendipitous opportunities of a traditional hackathon or codeathon-type event. We hope that people go beyond these categories, or combine them in new ways, to develop solutions that they feel can impact live on Earth or the progress of space exploration as a whole. We've included a "Submit a Challenge" feature (under the Challenges menu) where challenges can be submitted in these categories, or of a different flavor that still pertains to the broad goals of the event.
"So, without further ado, the categories are…."
The past few years have brought an acceptance of open source software development government-wide, and engaged a community who demonstrates success on a regular basis. We hope the International Space Apps challenge will provide a rich forum to showcase the benefits of this approach. The space community has benefitted from several open source projects, ranging from simulation of the solar system in intricate physical detail, to cloud computing platforms which allow scientists to manipulate massive amounts of downlinked spacecraft data. We now ask this community to help us once again, to further the state-of-the-art of the applications we use for space exploration, and to engineer dual-purposes of these apps for our needs on Earth. All software apps developed at the Apps Challenge will be licensed as open source, so that the code can provide benefit beyond the scope of our efforts.
Of course the same is true for those apps which are not purely software, which brings us to our next category…
Following the trail blazed by the open source software community, open hardware practices literally let anyone say, "Why yes, I am a rocket scientist!" Why are we super-excited about the open hardware movement? Because of what it is driving: sustainability via community.
Spaceflight has the ultimate resource challenge. The further we reach into the cosmos, the less we can rely on the Earth for resources, just as a remote village must reduce/reuse/recycle more than their city-dwelling counterpart. Every kilogram to Earth's orbit is a huge cost in fuel. Go further to the Moon or an asteroid and the cost in time and fuel is greater. Give that lunar outpost a 3D printer that uses moon-rocks as feedstock, and let them interact with a vibrant community in the Thingiverse… maybe that replacement part doesn't need to be launched from Earth to the Moon on the next resupply vessel! Hmmm…next let's bring some radiation-hardened Arduinos with us to Mars…
The exchange of open, improvable designs, within a scientific community who cares about improving them, leads us naturally to our next category…
For this category we would love to see scientific discovery happen directly from the eyes of the interested public, because in no other field do we see so clearly the effect of open participation on scientific progress. Massive amounts of raw data sometimes needs analysis that cannot be done by a computer. Maybe it's a visual inspection of a crater field, or the recognition of a pattern amidst a field of stars. A cleverly designed interface could allow thousands of citizen scientists to quickly perform that massive task.
Consider also the data acquisition abilities of an openly participating technical community. If a digital spectrometer is no longer something needing a college degree to operate – let alone access – maybe the range of observations taken by thousands of citizen scientists can reveal the unknown faster than ever.
If citizen science uses people for what cannot be done efficiently via computers or simulation, there must be a corollary where data is produced that needs manipulation before humans can utilize it properly. Yes, our final category is…
Terabytes. Or as people imagine Carl Sagan's voice saying: billions and billions of kilobytes. Each day more data is sent from NASA's spacecraft to the Earth than the human eye could read in a year. Those are just NASA's satellites. Consider other data sources as well as past data repositories, and we realize it could take literally forever to understand what we may have already observed. Unfortunately, computers are NOT born with the ability to turn data into meaningful visualizations. It takes skilled coders, data manipulation experts, interface designers, artists, and yes, in the end, it needs someone off the street to notice what has been right in front of the face of those staring at it for hours. It is certainly worth the effort though, because humans can only act upon data that human eyes can see, and that the human brain can understand.
So we ask you - yes, everyone - please help us visualize data in new ways, so that we may act upon it to make the world a better place, and to point us in new directions to explore.