NASA On a Mission to Seek New Ideas at Hackathon for Space Tech

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be gathering more data in space than just about anybody had ever done,” Wanga says. “Getting that data back down to Earth is hard. There’s no giant Ethernet jack in space.”

That quandary, he says, led the Go Lab team to pursue a solution to the data communication problem. The team is able to do a lot of prototyping without burning through a ton of money he says. Once the prototype is finished, he says they may explore seed funding. For now Go Lab is bootstrapped and operates out of AlleyNYC. “Space is scary for investors,” Wanga says.

The gold rush to the stars is still in its infancy, he says. This may change as more private companies such as SpaceX, Skybox Imaging, and Planet Labs enter this frontier. “The people [who have held] the keys to space haven’t had to explore how to make their technology cheaper and faster,” he says. Wanga cited media broadcasters, military, and governments as the incumbents who have dominated space thus far. “Now we’re poised to leave our planet in a meaning and profitable way,” he says.

Groups tend to form organically at the Space Apps hackathon, Wanga says, as individuals discover projects they can contribute expertise to. “Everybody was amazed to be working with massive data sets and with astronauts lingering around,” he says.

Though his hackathon experience was intense, Wanga says the spirit was more collaborative than competitive. “I had no idea there were prizes until the very end when people started winning things,” he says.

The ideas that emerge from the Space Apps Challenge, Caprio says, may help the world as a whole. In addition to working on hardware and software, some teams develop tools to help students understand space, he says. In spite of the relatively short time the teams have to work together, he says NASA hopes to see companies like Go Lab form and communities of innovators established as a result.

Much like an enterprise, even a vast space agency needs to look outside its halls for new ideas. “NASA was charged with finding new ways to foster innovation,” Caprio says. “They know it’s a ground up process to create innovation; it’s not something that happens from the top down.”

Ethan McMahon, NASA’s project manager with the Space Apps Challenge, says the hackathon is a way for the agency to tap ideas from outsiders with different skills and perspectives.

One of those ideas, he says, is ExoAPI. Born at a prior Space Apps Challenge, McMahon says ExoAPI makes it easier to access information from databases on planets outside the solar systems. Another example, he says, is an app called T-10, which gives astronauts in space a 10-minute warning when conditions will be best to take photos of specific locations of Earth.

NASA does not expect fully baked ideas to emerge from its hackathon, he says. However as more and more prototypes are developed at each Space Apps Challenge, they hope worthwhile ideas may appear. “NASA brings to the table open data and ideas for how that data can be applied,” Caprio says, “but we realize we can’t do it all.”

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