It’s Saturday morning at Drexel University’s ExCITe Center in West Philadelphia. The first morning of hacking for the 2013 International Space Apps Challenge begins.
Six students from the University of Pennsylvania’s Science and Technology Wing form a team, including undergrad Alain Hernandez, with several Arduinos, a Raspberry Pi, LED display, servos, and “an assortment of other hardware with no idea what we were going to do with them,” he says. Several challenges are discussed, including Spot the Station.
At the Space Apps Mainstage opening reception the night before, local legend Derek Pitts had invited the crowd to guess how many times they think the International Space Station passes over Philly. Up to seven times each day? And even urban watchers can see it without a telescope? They begin to brainstorm ways to bring this information to a wider variety of audiences.
Meanwhile, a team of six others had formed and were considering the same challenge. “In the spirit of collaboration,” says teammate Kai Ninomiya, “we decided to talk to the other group about our ideas—both to help us all with ideas and to avoid redundancy.” There is no team size limit, so they combine their powers.
In another corner, local high school student Himavath Jois reads the challenge descriptions over breakfast, considering his options. “Then, Leland Melvin came over to talk to me and brought me into the atmosphere,” he recalls. How often does an astronaut personally enlist your help? He can’t refuse, and the team acquires another builder.
This is the start to ISS Base Station, which has gone on to win Best Use of Hardware for extending the functionality of NASA’s Spot the Station alert system, further connecting people on Earth to the International Space Station.
ISS Base Station is part software, part hardware, and all art. An iOS app not only tracks the ISS but incorporates augmented reality to make it easier to spot and share its location on social media. In addition, a web app pushes data to the hardware piece, a statue that points to the station as it passes overhead.
The project connected several different skill sets, enabling the teammates to work most closely on their interests while observing others in action. Project manager Dan Giovanni helped connect each component and make sure the process ran smoothly.
Jois says skills learned with his high school robotics team helped him tackle the hardware component. “I’m not too interested in sitting in front of a computer for a long time and programming for hours on end, but I liked getting my hands into what I was doing.” Andrew Kondrath also helped build the demo using locally made K’NEX sets, two servos, and an Arduino. “All of the equipment probably cost less than \$75,” he says. “It could be done much cheaper.”
Cartographer Patrick Hammons joined the team, initially drawn to mapping. “There’s a geospatial element to [Space Apps], which is unique among hackathons,” he says. It was also an opportunity to see the connection between an initial tracker map and the software and hardware. “Seeing how the software works from beginning stage to final product, I felt like I learned a lot more about it in that way.”
Local designer TK Rodgers had just recently heard about hackathons and couldn’t wait to get involved. Philly Tech Week was just weeks away at the time, and connected her to several opportunities, including Space Apps. “After finding out that the ISS is accessible to everyone on Earth if assisted by tech to know when and how to spot the ISS, I was completely sold on the project. Having both Leland Melvin and Derrick Pitts with us made space so much closer, and I wanted to be able to share a bit of that feeling with the rest of the world.”
The team is excited about their win, but also excited to continue the work. They hope to further outfit the hardware component, perhaps with custom 3D-printed parts. The goal is to fortify it for standing up to wear in science and tech classrooms, or as a public art installation.
“I saw a lot of really cool and innovative projects, both at the local event and on the challenge website, and I know that was only a fraction of what was accomplished at the challenge,” says Kondrath. “It’s amazing what people can accomplish over a weekend.”