On October 1-2, this Saturday and Sunday, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) will once again be participating in NASA’s Space Apps Challenge, giving students the chance to contribute to solutions for real world space problems.
The NASA Space Apps Challenge is a 48 hour hackathon that gives students, designers, programmers, engineers, and others the opportunity to create innovative applications that solve real world problems in science, design, and communications faced by space agencies. The challenge is taking place both in person and online, based in cities around the world hosted by 11 international space agencies. This is the 6th year that the CSA has been involved in the challenge.
NASA said there have been over 180,000 registrations in the Challenge worldwide since its founding, and that the goal is to “inspire collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking” and to “encourage growth and diversity in the next generation of scientists, technologists, designers, engineers, and artists.”
Other space agencies besides NASA and the CSA that are involved include India’s ISRO, the Australian Space Agency, Mexico’s Agencia Espacial Mexicana, the Brazilian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Argentina’s Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales, Bahrain’s National Space Science Agency, the Agencia Espacial Del Paraguay, and the South African National Space Agency.
The Canadian contribution will come from teams based in cities from across the country: in Halifax, Mississauga, Vancouver, Hamilton, Ottawa, Calgary and Inuvik, with virtual teams able to choose a city to align themselves with. Prizes include a personalized electronic certificate signed by a Canadian astronaut, CSA giveaways, and “a virtual mentoring session with CSA experts.”.The CSA also says that “everyone is welcome, regardless of their age or level of technical expertise.”
There are four specific challenges that the CSA has laid out for Canadian teams to tackle. Each one includes more artistically- and expressively-focused “Stargazer challenges” and “Moonwalker” challenges that are aimed at more technically inclined teams.
- Exploring the distant universe with the James Webb Space Telescope – With the JWST now fully operational and putting out stunning imagery of distant galaxies and nearby planets, the CSA and other space agencies are grappling with a quickly-growing amount of images and datasets that need management, analysis, and interpretation.
The Stargazer challenge asks Canadians to “write a poem, short story or comic” inspired by the images and data, highlighting how they make people feel and what questions they raise. The Moonwalker challenge is to “create a code tutorial “using jupyter notebooks (or something similar) to show people how to use the [JWST] data,” including opening and viewing images, creating sky maps for the regions covered, applying custom filters, and other requirements detailed by the CSA.
- Space Survival Adventure – Space is a dangerous place, both for human beings and for space systems like satellites and the ISS. Radiation, signal interference, meteoroids, debris, and other threats require space situational awareness. The CSA’s challenge: “can you use Canadian data to find new ways to educate and raise awareness around these space-based challenges?”
The Stargazer challenge asks teams to find ways to educate people about these kinds of hazards, inspired from CSA datasets. They give the example of a card or board game that lets players “develop strategies to protect space assets or critical infrastructure on Earth.” The Moonwalker challenge asks teams to “integrate one or more CSA datasets in a creative new way to support education and outreach on space situational awareness,” whether by creating new visualizations or designing computer games to fulfill the same goals as the Stargazer teams.
- Global Methane Pledge – Methane is a short-lived but powerful climate pollutant, and governments around the world (including Canada) have signed on to a Global Methane Pledge in 2021 aimed at curbing global methane emissions. Teams are challenged to “raise awareness about methane emissions via an interactive game or create an integrated picture of global methane emissions using Canadian data.”
The Stargazer challenge is to use CSA materials to make a card, board, or video game to raise awareness around these issues, focused on different strategies for limiting methane emissions. The Moonwalker challenge is to use Canada’s SCISAT and Europe’s Sentinel-5P (S5P) data to “help develop an integrated picture of global methane emissions,” whether at the global, national or regional level. Teams can “integrate SCISAT’s vertical profile methane measurements with S5P’s total column measurements,” and/or “provide recommendations on how to move forward with an integrated space-based methane dataset.”
- Asteroid Delivery Service – The 2016 OSIRIS-REx mission travelled to near-Earth asteroid Bennu, and will be returning to Earth in September of 2023 with a sample from the asteroid. Scientists believe that Bennu is largely unchanged since the formation of the solar system, and studying it will help “shed light on how our solar system formed,” and perhaps even how water came to Earth. Teams are invited to “help OSIRIS-REx navigate the surface of Bennu, and explore how the mission will inform scientific discoveries for decades to come.”
The Stargazer challenge is to either create a comic that “tells the story of OSIRIS-REx’s journey,” to create a time capsule and “fill it with things that you think you might find in an early solar system,” or to envision the Bennu sample as a time capsule and “draw what you think it might contain” and what mysteries it might solve. The Moonwalker challenge is to use the data gathered from the Canadian laser altimeter called OLA, which was part of OSIRIS-REx and used to create a 3D map of its surface, to “choose the best sampling site for OSIRIS-REx” and explain why you chose that site. The data is a “lidar point cloud dataset” and the CSA page points to resources on how to best use the datasets.
One of the winners of the 2021 CSA Space Apps Challenge was Adam McMullen, part of “Team Northstar” from Ottawa, Ontario, who created a solution for the CSA’s “Space Radiation Danger” challenge. He gave seven tips to the 2022 teams vying for the prize:
- Do not give up when you have a bug: setbacks will happen, and problem-solving rarely has a linear path to a solution. Make the best of whatever challenges you encounter.
- Do not reinvent the wheel: if a tool already exists, use it!
- Determine how you will be most productive: Adam knew that missing sleep would hinder his productivity, so he avoided the “lots of coffee and no sleep” hacking stereotype.
- Don’t make other plans that weekend: you’ll be too busy, and it could start a new career in space exploration!
- Carefully plan your approach choose your teammates, collaboration method, and challenge wisely.
- Use your time wisely: that includes accepting that you might not be able to complete everything you want to
- Gather inspiration: look at previous years’ challenges and the solutions that were submitted.
Registration is still open for those who’d like to build a team and join in. The registration link is available on the CSA Space Challenge page. Participants are also invited to join the official CSA Space Apps 2022 Discord server, and to join the kickoff on September 30th from 6:30-7:30 EDT on Microsoft Teams.