NASA in Plymouth!

Blue Marble image of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on Dec. 7 1972.
Image Credit: NASA

It was great to be invited to give the introductory talk at the inaugural Plymouth NASA Space Apps Challenge last weekend.

Space Apps is a two-day international hackathon hosted in cities around the world, globally coordinated by NASA. It began in 2012 and since then has become a large annual event with participants from around one hundred countries taking part. There were a number of events in the UK, although the South West was leading the way as we had events in Plymouth, Exeter and Bristol! Elsewhere in the country there were a couple in London alongside Belfast, Cambridge and Hull.

Every year NASA provides a series of themed challenges and then teams get together for the weekend to try and see whether they can come up with a solution. The overall theme for this year was Earth and Space, and they were unpinned with a series of challenge areas to ensure that there is something for everyone. It’s this last point that’s the key one – getting everyone involved.

The teams are made up of a wide range of people and diverse skillsets. Some of the teams knew each other before, whilst others were put together for the weekend. It meant you could come along on your own to the event, join a team and starting building a solution and new friendships.

At City College Plymouth, which was the first UK Further Education College to host one of these events, I gave the opening talk about Earth observation and showed the different types of data that’s available and then spent some time talking to each of the teams as they set off with their ideas.

We had five teams competing with students ranging from those at school to those studying at City College and Plymouth University. The teams, and their solutions, were:

  • Air_Q focused on the ‘Health Makes Wealth’ challenge by designing and prototyping a phone app that will monitor air pollution in real-time using citizen science collected, and open, data.
  • Applied Sciences looked into the ‘Develop a sensor to be used by humans on Mars’ challenge focusing on a vital monitoring system for astronauts on Mars. This included monitoring their health using devices within their spacesuits, alongside setting up a network of beacons to allow the data to be continuously transmitted back to the hub; enabling alerts to be sent to a colleague if issues arose.
  • AutoRobot worked on the ‘Invent Your Own’ challenge and designed a small rover that used ultrasound sensors to avoid obstacles and find the best path, undertaking a successful live demo.
  • Geeks & Gamers were on the ‘Virtual Space Exploration’ challenge and produced a virtual reality version of Mars so astronauts and mission planners could understand the situations to be faced in advance of landing. In the limited time available they were able to generate a real-time system using Mars data, with an astronaut moving through it.
  • Mario and the Three Coders also took on the Invent Your Own Challenge and focused on techniques to launch CubeSats into space. They investigated novel methods, including calculating the feasibility and costs, and concluded the best approach was a two-stage rocket.

You can read more about the teams and their projects here.

After two days of fantastic work I was part of the judging panel for the pitches from each of the teams with Dr Anna-Louise Ellise and Andy Robinson-Noades from City College and Ian Ames from Landmark. We were tasked with picking two solutions to put forward to the NASA Global Judging Panel. It was really difficult as all the teams had great ideas and worked hard to both develop them and give an informative pitch. However, after much deliberation and discussion, the final decision was to forward Applied Sciences and Geeks & Gamers.

All the teams should be proud of the amazing things that they managed to produce in just a weekend – and that is worth repeating – they had less than two days to do this! Fantastic effort and work all round.

Applied Sciences and Geeks & Gamers now have to put together a 30-second video of their project that will be judged by NASA, with the top 30 projects across the world selected as the winners. We wish our two teams the best of luck in the competition!!!

We also want to say thank you to everyone at City College Plymouth, and everyone supporting them, for the huge effort to both bring the event to Plymouth and support the participants across the two days.  In particular, Dr Anna-Louise Ellise deserves a huge round of applause; she’d taken a tumble while running around in the lead-up and torn her hamstring, but this didn’t stop her being there and acting as a great inspiration to everyone.

Overall, it was a great weekend and looking forward to next year!!

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