Home > Design, Outreach, physics, projects, schools, science > The NASA International Space Apps Challenge

The NASA International Space Apps Challenge

Did you hear the one about the product designer, the jeweller and the physicist? Oh, and NASA too.

My colleague Jon Rogers (@iledigital) told me that he had just ‘had the Skype of a lifetime’. I guess this is the NASA effect. NASA holds, for many, the sense of adventure and exploration that is often lacking from our everyday lives. For many kids NASA and the space programme are an inspiration that lead them to a wide variety of careers in science and engineering as well as being a dream, that one day they could end up in space. And now NASA wanted to work with us!

Jon is a product designer at the University of Dundee and runs our successful MSc in Product Design. His research emphasis is on physical apps, which as he explains it are a way to take information or data from the internet and connect that to a real world device. He will be showcasing examples of this work making use of paper circuitry (and how it can save the music industry(!) ) at SxSW next week. Physical apps are a way of making the web physical.

NASA’s Apollo rockets made use of computers that are puny in terms of the processing power, storage capacity and memory of your average smartphone. And what do we use this awesome power for? To send the odd email and play Angry Birds. Since the 1960’s NASA has invested huge amounts in space exploration and in the novel technology to work in the harshest of environments, and in doing so has collected huge amounts of data and made many significant technical innovations. They now want to harness these archives to try and make “practical applications that benefit humanity”.

And they want everyone to help. Can you, as a citizen of the world, make some contribution to the big challenges that face the world? Does that seem daunting? By working together with similarly concerned citizens from throughout the world, NASA believes that by sharing your expertise you can make a difference.

Powering lasers with an Arduino. Can you 'make' a difference?

NASA invited people to make suggestions about grand challenges that could be solved making use of their data and expertise. Perhaps unsurprisingly the initial tranche of suggestions were software based. To help define some more “physical” ideas NASA asked Dundee for some help. We want to make, rather than just code.

The beauty of a University environment is that it is a microcosm of the world outside, with a huge range of skills and outlooks, races and creeds all crammed into a small campus. This means we are ideally suited to see what happens when people with different skill sets come together and work on problems. Jon and I had been looking for something to work on for a while, but it’s not always obvious what a product designer and an optical physicist can do for each other, but with space and some shared childhood dreams we were able to see how our mutual expertise could try and help define what physical apps could mean for NASA.

Oh, and I am forgetting the jeweller. Sandra Wilson (@Gold1) designs jewellery at the University’s Duncan of Jordanstone Art College. This is not ordinary jewellery though, it’s linked into ideas about identity and we thought that a physical app, at it’s most straightforward would be something you could wear – you can wear ‘space’. Looking a bit further ahead, jewellery makes it fairly straightforward to embed technology within it, but the challenge might be how to power that device and how to connect it to a data source?

Our first port of call was to the MSc Product Design students and we set them the task of thinking about what data is and how this can be visualized in a physical manner, and also about how ideas of space link back to life on Earth. Where do the challenges lie? The full list of ideas will be live on the space apps challenge page, but here’s one to give you a flavour of what a space physical app might be.

A Maker Faire is a celebration of people making their own stuff, usually with a technological bent, but more generally it’s all about having ideas and turning them into a reality. Making stuff. Making stuff for fun, for everyday use, maybe even for profit.

We want you to try and make stuff – some of that will be grand theme and grand idea type challenges, but we want to start with something a bit more homely. Can we bring a little piece of home to astronauts in the International Space Station. If you are stuck up in a confined space whizzing round the earth for months, if not years, at a time, you are going to miss the odd home comfort. Can humans survive on trips to further flung reaches of the solar system without the odd reminder of home?

We thought that little says ‘home’ like home baking. With yeast being a model organism for many experiments, and as it often finds itself in zero-g conditions, it seems a natural extension to try and make something with it: bread. How will bread bake in space? And a key technological challenge is, since baking takes a lot of energy, can we device new low power techniques that can be applied on the Space Station, and then ultimately in the new low power homes back on Earth that we will need in the future?

We call this challenge #bakerfaire.

We call on makers, bakers, bread lovers, food scientists, product designers, electrical engineers and tinkerers everywhere to come and develop physical apps and hardware as part of the NASA International Space Challenge. Come help us bring home into space, and in doing so, help us shape a better planet.

P.S. If anyone fancies making me a little device that warns when the ISS is about to pass overhead, that’s the simple physical space app that I would really love!

David McGloin is a physicist in the Electronic Engineering and Physics Division at the University of Dundee, Scotland. His primary work is concerned with optics and the application of optics to environmental and biophysical problems. First enthused about physics by space shuttle launches and finding about how stars work, he is excited to be part of the NASA Space Apps Challenge.

  1. Stewart Hunter
    March 2, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Hi David. The app that warns of an impending ISS appearance chimes with me. Are you aware of @twisst? Mostly it informs you of a crossing several hours hence, and sometimes it fails to give any warning at all, but occasionally – like yesterday – it’ll give you 20 minutes’ notice. Just enough time to abandon the kids’ tea, get the camera out and play with a few settings in preparation. 😉

    • March 2, 2012 at 9:15 am

      HI Stewart,

      I wasn’t aware of @twisst, so thanks for the tip. I do follow various people on twitter than send out this info, but unless I’m watching twitter at the time I tend to forget about it! The idea of a physical app would be to then take this info and link it to a device. So for the ISS warning system this shouldn’t be so difficult. Get an arduino to monitor an appropriate twitter feed and then set off an alarm or turn on a light etc as a warning. Could you then miniaturise this and embed it in a ring, for example? The idea is a sort of If This Then That but link to real objects. You could possibly do the same sort of thing with ifft and link it to an SMS message. I should really just make the ISS warning myself. There’s always next week…

      • Stewart Hunter
        March 2, 2012 at 12:06 pm

        Hi David. The scenario you describe doesn’t sound far removed from the process in which @twisst itself acts like the arduino. Rather than passively tweeting, it matches your location as given in your Twitter bio with ISS passes over that location then sends an alert. This sets off an alarm on my Blackberry, thus obviating the need to watch my feed. Of course, receiving notice of ISS passes over London when on holiday in New Zealand wouldn’t be much use, so a means of taking into account actual location would be nice…

  2. March 2, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    Hi David
    Great little post. Im going to publish something soon on the NASA challenges too – to one of my blogs on the body and technology see http://thebodyandtechnology.wordpress.com/ although Im not as prolific a blogger as you

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