NASA’s 2015 International Space Apps Challenge April 11-12 coincided with the 35th anniversary of the monster of all space-age hackathons:  the ill-fated Apollo 13 flight.  35 years ago, engineers on the ground labored desperately to make things on the wounded spacecraft do things they were never intended to do so the astronauts could be returned safely to Earth.

Most of the thousands of individuals worldwide participating this year’s Space Apps hackathon hadn’t even been born when the Apollo 13 crisis occurred, and their efforts didn’t have immediate life-or-death implications.  But they threw themselves enthusiastically into a variety of challenges, and collectively came up with some amazing solutions that can potentially improve life on earth and experiences in outer space.

The Reno Space Apps team—one of 133 around the globe—was split between two projects:

  • GEO (Geological Environment Observer) is a data-visualization device that uses meteorological input to emulate actual weather conditions–including lighting, visuals and sound–occurring at a remote location.
  • Biggest Little Solar System is a scale model of the solar system that can be deployed in Reno or elsewhere and–with some virtual- and augmented-reality enhancements–used for education and/or entertainment.

GEO:  A Sense of Home in Outer  Space

Using the open-source Tempescope ambient weather display as a model, the GEO group hacked together a functioning GEO device that simulates the sights and sounds of rain, lightning, wind, fog, clouds and light variations.  While the Tempescope was designed to display tomorrow’s predicted weather in your home today, a GEO in space would use real-time meteorological data from Earth to recreate the current weather conditions in an astronaut’s home town.

“The idea is to combat depression and anxiety astronauts may experience in long-distance space flight,” said Ashley Hennefer, the GEO team leader.  “Research has shown that ambient lighting and sound can contribute to psychological well-being, and there is evidence that connections to the Earth’s natural environment have a positive impact on astronauts in space.”

Turbulent Weather in the Geo
GEO displays turbulent weather

Using meterological data from NASA as input, the GEO can also function as an earthbound display of the climate conditions on other planets.  For example, the Reno Space Apps group experimented with making their prototype GEO display with weather conditions on Mars.

The GEO group found they couldn’t use the open-source Tempescope software, and had to develop the GEO code pretty much from scratch.  The results were impressive, but Hennefer said the sound system still needs work.  “We can start the sounds manually, but we still need to figure out how to get the GEO to automatically make the appropriate sounds when particular weather conditions—such as rain, wind and lightning—are displayed.”

Bringing Space Objects Down to Earth

While the GEO group is taking something from earth and manifesting it in space, the Biggest Little Solar System group is basically doing the opposite.  The BLSS team is building a scale model of the solar system that can be implemented on earth, using the Fleischmann Planetarium’s dome—a model of the sun—as a starting point.  At this scale, Earth is 3.5 inches in diameter and .65 miles away from the model sun, and the solar system is approximately 40 miles across.  Pluto’s orbit would go through Fernley.

Once the BLSS is implemented across a region, beacons on the model planets are picked up by mobile phones that come within range.  An augmented-reality app could show users their current position in the model solar system, and let them explore the particular object they have just reached.  A geocaching extension could be used to create an augmented-reality scavenger hunt.

“Such games could be combined with a host-a-planet program that would promote local businesses and non-profits,” said Joe Chavez, one of the BLSS team members.  “You adjust the scale of the BLSS so the planetary orbits go through certain key locations, where you place beacon-equipped models of the appropriate solar system objects.”

Solar System Project Gang at Work2015-04-12 15.41.32
BLSS team at work

The BLSS group took a modular approach, assigning different people to various parts of the project.  Collectively, the group is developing a web application, mobile apps for IoS and Android phones, an augmented-reality application, and an API that connects the BLSS to data from NASA and other public sources.

“As we got into the project, we found that the planetary-orbit data was scattered about and updated differently, and couldn’t be fed as is into the BLSS,” said Chavez.  “We had to build an API that can normalize the data so the model’s planets can be positioned appropriately.”

The group also struggled a bit with converting the Cartesian geography coordinates of space into Earth’s latitude-and-longitude positioning, and with addressing all the variables in the planetary orbits.  The elliptical patterns of the actual orbits in space are independent of each other, and are not all on one plane.

Now that the two-day hackathon is over, Reno and the other Space Apps Challenge teams around the world have a week to finish projects and submit them to NASA along with a 60-second video synopsis.  NASA will take several weeks to judge the entries, and is expected to announce the winners on May 11.

In its fourth year, the International Space Apps Challenge has grown into the world’s largest hackathon.  Part of NASA’s incubator innovation program, the Space Apps Challenge event provides a forum for a two-way technology transfer.  NASA technology and data can be commercialized or otherwise applied on Earth, while real-world problems NASA still faces are crowdsourced to Space Apps participants.