Houston group joins NASA for international space challenge

2013-04-21 08:33:03 GMT2013-04-21 16:33:03(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

by Betty L. Martin

HOUSTON, April 20 (Xinhua) -- At the second annual two-day International Space Apps Challenge under the auspices of NASA, a small, diverse group in Houston had two things in common with each other and with team members around the world: enthusiasm for problem solving and a love of space exploration.

Eighty-three cities, including Houston, from several countries and regions hosted sites for the 48-hour challenge that began Saturday. The goal was to collaborate, in person or via the world wide web, with other participants, NASA and the International Space Station to produce relevant open-source solutions that address global needs applicable to life on Earth and life in space.

"This is about engaging young people in NASA. I think some solutions are going to come from the younger generation. There's a lot of talent out there that doesn't mold into the traditional route," said David Alexander, director of the Rice Space Institute and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Rice University, where the Houston portion of the challenge was held.

Alexander said that when NASA decided to create the space apps challenge last year for the first time, Houston was not included.

"This year, they approached us to host it and we jumped at the chance," Alexander said.

The challenge this year is just part of what NASA is doing to attract young minds that can think outside the box, Alexander said.

"NASA is doing a lot of clever things as far as how young people are approaching solutions to problems in many different ways. What NASA does is to post a particular problem -- maybe a piece of code, maybe a piece of hardware on the space station -- on their web site and then request proposals," Alexander said. "What they are finding is that people from all over the world are coming up with innovative solutions."

The challenges have been posted for about a month, so some participants have been working on the solutions at home in their spare time away from school or jobs, Alexander said.

"Some of the problems are relatively simple: How would you best represent the data coming from the Curiosity Rover to the public?" he said. "Other problems are more complex: How would you house a person on the moon in the next five years?"

Problems have to be intriguing to the problem solvers, Alexander said, but most importantly, they have to be useful to NASA.

"If it's not a total solution, maybe it's just an idea that can help move something forward," he said.

Participants were greeted with a video of an astronaut inside the International Space Station orbiting 250 miles above them.H James Wroblewski, chief executive officer of Entrepreneurship Development Group that helped in organizing the event, said he expected about 20 people from the technology community at the Houston site to partner on space apps over the weekend.

"We have space apps participants throughout the world -- Japan, India, South America, Canada, Hawaii, Australia and throughout Europe, including both eastern and western Europe," Wroblewski said. "There's lots of ways to get involved and create new things."

Ryan Woods, a young professional net application developer, said he enjoyed "hackathons" and space projects. He and his Houston-based partner picked the challenge to compare earth landscapes to planetary surfaces like the moon, Mars, Mercury, Ceres, Vesta and others.

Seventeen-year-old Grady Wang, an eleventh-grade student at Cinco Ranch High School in Katy, Texas, picked the challenge to foster a connection between citizens and the Mars rover through software, visualizations, or an app.

"It's an open-ended problem that allows a lot of opportunity for creativity," Wang said. "So I'm on the computer looking for team members that want to study the same problem."

Other challenges include creating an app that would allow observers of a meteor shower to trace the location, color and size of the shooting stars, and exploring the far side of the moon using available images and data by creating web applications and 3D-printed objects.

Software developer Ken Kenonoka left his native Japan 10 years ago to move to Houston. He is working solo on his project, to build a remote operation system in a phone or computer to control a robot made of Lego building blocks.

"This is my first time to join this kind of project," Kenonoka said. "I'm interested in how people are doing these projects all over the world and what we'll be able to come up with."

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