Devs Rev Up for a Weekend of Galactic Problem-Solving

More than 10,000 software and hardware developers, scientists and space fans will spend this weekend huddling in rooms in 136 cities around the world to participate in NASA’s fourth annual International Space Apps Challenge — a hackathon for space wonks.

Using IBM’s Bluemix Platform as a Service, they will develop apps, software, hardware, data visualization and platform solutions to help space exploration missions and to improve life on Earth.

The participants will leverage publicly available data from more than 200 NASA sources, including datasets, services and tools from real-life NASA missions and technology.

They will use them to design solutions to 35 challenges in four categories — outer space, Earth, humans and robotics.

Two projects from each city will advance to global judging, and a panel of NASA judges will select one winner in each of the finalist categories: best mission concept; best user of hardware; best use of data; most inspiring; and galactic impact.

Further, IBM will present up to 30 awards at local Space Apps events for the most innovative use of Bluemix, with prizes of to one year’s free access to Bluemix, and up to 80 hours’ tech support and assistance from senior IBM devs over a six-month period.

What NASA Needs?

The challenges represent NASA mission priorities in four areas — Earth studies, space exploration, human health research and robotics.

Many of the challenges focus on the Earth theme to support NASA’s missions to monitor the planet’s vital signs from land, air and space.

“This is a great way to get more academic and community involvement, as well as free coding services,” enthused Jim McGregor, principal at Tirias Research.

On the other hand, the code “will only be useful for the platforms that it’s being developed for,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The most critical applications will require detailed knowledge of very customized hardware platforms, such as those used for launch vehicles and landers.”

The exploration of space is a unified international effort, NASA pointed out, adding that it wants to make the hackathon valuable to and accessible to the international community.

However, it appears that most of the hackathon participants are based in the United States and Western Europe. There seem to be a few in Latin America; some in India, Japan and Russia; and just one in Australia, based on a Space Apps Challenge map.

What’s a Bluemix?

Bluemix is a cloud-based service built in just 18 months by a team of people in widely dispersed locations.

It is based on open source Cloud Foundry technology and runs on a SoftLayer infrastructure.

Bluemix supports Java, Node.js, Go, PHP, Python, Ruby and other languages, and it can be extended to support still more.

The hackathon “is a great opportunity for IBM to showcase its Bluemix developer capabilities, which have evolved considerably in recent months,” remarked Al Hilwa, program director for software research at IDC.

“I can’t think of a more challenging set of applications for any PaaS environment than what these developers are going to dream up,” he told TechNewsWorld.

IBM Gives a Little, Takes a Little

The hackathon “is basically a community set up to help train Watson to address some of the broad needs of NASA,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“If it takes a village to grow a child into a productive adult, it takes an AI community to properly train [Watson] to become fully productive,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“It isn’t just coming up with the applications,” Enderle elaborated. “It’s training the system in the process of creation — making it smarter and more capable, and helping it evolve into what it needs to become in order to both protect and advance the human race.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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