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

Space can be a frontier—in a non-Star Trek way.

Like gold miners of old, some technologists see opportunities for disruption and commercialization beyond our atmosphere. NASA’s annual International Space Apps Challenge, coming up this weekend, will be a chance for innovators around the world to spawn ideas that might boldly go amongst the stars.

The 48-hour hackathon brings together folks trying to create novel ways to meet objectives in five categories: robotics, asteroids, Earth observation, human spaceflight, and technology in space. The Space Apps Challenge will be held simultaneously in 100 cities on six continents this year, with its “main stage” hub in New York at the AlleyNYC coworking space. Other participating U.S. cities include Cambridge, MA; Round Rock, TX; San Francisco; and Seattle.

Mike Caprio, co-founder of Space Apps NYC, will shepherd the action at the New York main stage. Space Apps NYC is a collaboration between Startup Bus NYC, where Caprio is a community leader, and the New York Technology Council. The first Space Apps hackathon was held in 2012, Caprio says, in 40 locations worldwide. Last year, he says, upwards of 11,000 participants joined in around the world. This year he hopes to see 15,000 people involved across all the sites.

Teams who meet at weekend hackathons rarely follow through on their ideas, but sometimes something does stick. James Wanga and his teammates at Gotham Laboratories (Go Lab) are alumni of last year’s Space Apps Challenge. Wanga believes ideas that were just science fiction several years ago are becoming industrially viable now. The Go Lab crew is working on a way to use what they call “nano satellites” as relays for the Internet of things.

“We’re building a transceiver that will allow machines to have an inexpensive, ubiquitously available [data] connection,” he says. By using nano satellites in near-earth orbit to relay information between land-based machines instead of cell phone towers or Wi-Fi radio, he believes Go Lab can disrupt the global communications industry. For now the team is still working on a prototype, he says.

The technology has a ways to go before it launches into orbit, but the team has been eagerly keeping their eyes on the stars. The Go Lab team initially came together to work on a prototype for mapping asteroids. The night prior to the 2013 hackathon, Wanga posted the idea online about using a drone to mimic zero gravity and simulate a spaceship surveying the surface of an asteroid. His post got the attention of his future teammates.

Drone designed to simulate how a nano satellite could operate in space.

Drone designed to simulate a nano satellite.

His team’s plan at the hackathon was to equip a drone with sonar to map the walls of rooms. “We wanted to show you could use small inexpensive spacecraft to map the surface of an asteroid,” Wanga says. In actual use, he says, such a drone would need technology other than sonar to function in space. That could be a camera that turns images into data, for example.

The team ended up winning the best hardware prize, Wanga says. Though he thought little would come from the Space Apps Challenge, the team promised to refine the idea. Soon that idea would gain traction.

NASA has been working on the Asteroid Initiative, Wanga says, an attempt to visit, capture, and retrieve a small near-earth asteroid. The space agency wanted to hear more about the team’s idea, which eventually led to a proposal on how to proceed in the real world. While working out the logistics of sending a robotic drone to an asteroid, the Go Lab team started looking at micro ion thrusters to move the device through the solar system. Ion thrusters are sort of electric propulsion used in some satellites.

As the team worked on how to maneuver the drone in space, Wanga says more opportunities emerged. “We thought we may have a scalable business on our hands,” he says, “if we’ve discovered a way to build small spacecraft for orders of magnitude cheaper than is typically done.”

The business plan evolved further, he says, as the team worked on its technology. Wanga says they considers different uses for cameras mounted on the tiny nano satellites, capturing real-time images of the Earth from anywhere in the world. “That has huge ramifications for people in environmental sciences, disaster response, agriculture, and traffic management,” he says.

Along with those possible applications came a bit of a dilemma. “We were going to 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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