NASA Space Apps Challenge Blasts Off in Toronto and Winnipeg

2013 is shaping up to be a big year for Canadians in space.

While Commander Chris Hadfield has been manning the International Space Station, developers in Toronto and Winnipeg have been collectively brainstorming ideas about the future of space travel.

Last weekend, Canadians in these two cities participated in the International Space Apps Challenge, a unique 48-hour hackathon with 9,000 competitors in over 80 locations around the world.

The goal of the Space Apps Challenge was to design technology-based projects based on current trends in space science. Jonathan Moneta, one of the Toronto co-organizers, talked to Techvibes about the event.

From the beginning, Moneta says, NASA played a central role in facilitating the hackathon. “NASA established the guiding parameters of the competition. They also provided the framework for international collaboration in a number of ways,” he remarked in an interview.

This included issuing fifty unique challenges for teams to work on solving. Participants in Toronto tackled two dozen of these in the local competition, which took place at the Royal Ontario Museum.

The projects were wide ranging and included a simulation game that takes place on the moon, a prototype for a greenhouse on Mars, and an app that tracks the movement of the International Space Station.

One team designed a stationary 3D printer that could print full-size satellites ready for orbit. The project, called the International Print Station, really stood out for its creative design.

“This was a concept that was so imaginative, so well done, so detailed,” said Moneta.  The project also won a Best in Hardware award on the last day of the hackathon.

The Space Apps Challenge officially kicked off a week before the main event, when participants began strategizing and forming teams. Last weekend, the teams took all day Saturday and most of Sunday to develop their entries.

Throughout the competition, they worked with local experts, including engineers, developers, designers and pitch mentors, to fine-tune their projects. “The make-up of the event was quite unique,” remarked Moneta.

The hackathon also included a children’s program, which was sponsored by Hive Toronto. The enthusiastic participants designed their own digital aliens using an iPad, and then printed their creations using a 3D printer.

Now that the competition is over, each team will post their open source projects on GitHub. For many of the teams, Moneta says, the development process has only just begun.

“A lot of our teams are going to continue working on this. Some have already established partnerships with companies and industry professionals,” he remarked.

Online feedback is already reflecting the exciting potential of the Toronto event. One local team has caught the attention of astronaut Leland D. Melvin, who expressed his support for the iOS app Waystation. The app was designed to help Canadians connect with astronauts on the International Space Station.

“Any connection we can make to bring people together from all around the planet is what we have to do, is what we must do, to show the benefits of us being there and you being on the ground and the synergy of us working together,” Melvin told the app developers via Google+. “This is awesome. Just make it happen.”

While the hackathon teams and organizers are still catching up on sleep, Moneta is optimistic about the event’s future in Toronto. “This year, we really worked on developing a brand,” he said. “We definitely want to do this again next year.”