The Space Apps Challenge, an international mass collaboration effort led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is helping harness the world’s collective brainpower to bring open source solutions to global needs.

This year, 12,609 participants in 135 locations, spanning 61 countries on six continents, focused their attention on 25 challenges in categories relating to Earth, Outer Space, Humans and Robotics.

Locally, the 2015 Baltimore-Washington Space Apps Challenge hosted teams of creative technology enthusiasts on April 11 and 12 at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in North Laurel.

Each participating location nominated two of its projects for a global judging round, in which a panel of NASA judges will select winners in each of five categories: Best Mission Concept, Best Use of Hardware, Best Use of Data, Most Inspiring and Galactic Impact.

Participants selected a smartphone-based Water Finder application, designed to help people in developing countries find clean water sources, and an educational video game based on colonizing a Martian lava tube as the local entries.

One of those nominees, the Water Finder App, has now advanced to the Top 15 pool of a separate award category, the People’s Choice award, to be chosen through a social media analytic process.

[Editor’s note: The public voting period to determine the top five People’s Choice finalists ended on May 3, too late for results to be included in this issue of The Business Monthly.]

Voting to determine the overall People’s Choice winner will end at midnight on Friday, May 8.

Global Incubator

Billed as a creative data innovation incubator, NASA’s annual Space Apps Challenge was launched in 2012, and APL held its first sanctioned Challenge event in 2014.

During the event, teams use publicly released open data to create hardware, software, mobile applications, data visualizations and platform solutions.

“These challenges … provide opportunities for U.S. and global citizen scientists, engineers and students to interact and contribute to space exploration through code development, data analytics, innovation, and open source software and hardware,” said NASA Chief Technology Officer Deborah Diaz.

According to Wes Jenkins, an APL engineer and co-organizer of the Laurel event, this year’s list of challenges offered opportunities for local teams to showcase their creativity, talents and abilities.

“APL provided a stimulating and exciting space to help teams mold their ideas into solutions,” he said, with APL engineers and outside volunteers possessing a broad range of expertise on hand to offer advice and guidance.

Narrowing the Field

On the first day of the challenge, participants gathered in APL’s Space Exploration Sector Building to discuss interests and expertise, and to winnow down the registered projects to those presenting the best chance of completion and submission before the Challenge deadline.

Other projects up for consideration at APL included participant Vincent Pugliese’s Ultrasonic Stereo-Vision Platform that uses standard hobbyist microcontrollers and microprocessors to approximate a real-time ultrasonic map of an environment.

Participant Patricia Harrington-Duff proposed a Space Event Alert Monitor consisting of an Android mobile alert app, designed to alert developers, scientists and mission operators to the availability of new data from space probes, launch events and other programs or activities.

Two Scratch-based educational video games were also proposed. “Space Jam: Quest of the Green Blocks,” proposed by Eleanor Zhang, addresses variables in the process of launching a spacecraft; and “Crashed: Survival on Mars” by seventh grade students Andrew Zhao and Matthew Zhang, was submitted as one of APL’s Global Nominees. Their game simulates shelter construction, mining activity and resource management critical to the survival of a colony living inside a lava tube on Mars.


The concept behind the Water Finder app proposed by Alexis Saint-Jean, of Rockville, is simple and useful.

“It uses crowd sourcing to gather data about where a user can find clean water,” he said.

In developing countries, water is often scarce and frequently unclean. Using the app, “Individuals select what they want to use the water for, and they can see the nearest water sources and water quality on a map,” Saint-Jean said. “They will also be able to see the amount of time it will take them to get there and the amount of wait time they can expect at each source, so they can minimize their [time investment].”

The app also enables crowdsourcing data to be combined with data from NASA’s orbiting observatory Soil Mapping Active Passive or other satellites. This is to help nonprofit and governmental organizations predict where water is needed most, and where to deploy sensors and other resources.

Saint-Jean teamed with two other Challenge participants, Mark Agnes and Ethan McMahon, to put the finishing touches on the project.

“We’re very pleased to see one of our nominees make it into the Top 15 round of People’s Choice judging,” said Space & Defense Engineer Bob Berardino, who led the Challenge Activities at APL.

He and the other organizers are already planning to participate in the 2016 Space Apps Challenge, which is expected to take place around the second week of April.

“Our intent is to co-brand the event with other organizations and affinity groups at APL and run STEM demonstrations and tutorials in parallel with the Challenge,” Berardino said. “Our sense is that we could create some more synergy between these groups that could encourage even more participation next year.”

Global Nominees received a one-year license for the Integrated Development Environment product of their choice through the JetBrains software development company, as well as a NASA Space Apps Challenge Galactic Problem Solver Certificate.

Overall Global Award winners will be eligible to attend the September 2015 Space X Dragon launch that will send supplies to the International Space Station.