What exactly is a space app? What could you do with all that data, anyway? And how can we use space to improve life on Earth? 

On the first night of the first codeathon-type event I ever attended, I saw this quote from Herb Kelleher posted on the wall: “We have a strategic plan, it’s called DOING THINGS.” And that’s the key to what’s going to happen at the Apps Challenge: we’re in this to do things. We’re in this to make things. We’re in this because we believe that the questions that motivate us to explore space can change the way we live here on Earth and the way the next generation will continue to explore, and we’re ready to see where that takes us.

To stir up your imagination, the Apps Challenge team has assembled this list of some of the coolest apps we have seen recently using space data, space experience, or just plain space awesomeness. They include software and hardware, science and art, education outreach and creative ideation. Some of these apps originated as official NASA projects; some are the work of engaged, inspired citizens. Nearly all demonstrate the vital importance of open data and the scientific and technological possibilities it creates.

You can read more here about the four types of challenges we will address at the event. We’re adding new challenges to the site every few days… go here to read and comment on the current challenges, and go here to submit a new challenge idea for the International Space Apps Challenge.


ISS Notify Lamp (created by Nathan Bergey)

open hardware/ open data app

ISS Lamp from Nathan Bergey on Vimeo.

Space Ipsum Generator (created by Sean Herron, Nick Skytland, and William Eshagh)

software/ open data app

Lorem Ipsum is the standard filler text used in design throughout the world. It’s been the standards since the 1500’s and it’s time for an update. The NASA OpenGov team took the opportunity at Science Hack Day to create a new online tool to generate filler text based on a database of historical space quotes. The project serves as an example of what can be done to utilize historic NASA data and mash it up in a new and exciting way. Although a “lorem ipsum” generator may seem inconsequential at first glance, the weekend project will serve as the backbone to a future data mashup project for the NASA OpenGov team.

The Space Ipsum site also perhaps NASA’s first experiment in responsive design – the idea the content should not dictate the look and feel of the site.  No matter what type of platform you view the website on, you’ll always be able to access it’s core features due to the use of CSS3 media queries. This is an evolution in web design and represents the future of how web design should act.  The site also features some of NASA’s historic space images that load as the background randomly when a user visits the site.  We’ve put the code on github and encourage others to use it for their purposes.

Near Earth Asteroid Lamp (created by Nathan Bergey)

open hardware/ open data app

Near Earth Asteroid Lamp from Nathan Bergey on Vimeo.

Zero-G Coffee Cup (created by NASA Astronaut Don Pettit)

open hardware/physical app

NASA astronaut Don Pettit will do anything for his morning coffee—even physics. Using a sheet of plastic from an overhead projector and a solid understanding of fluid dynamics, Pettit created a special cup that you can sip from in zero gravity without using a straw.

Galaxy Zoo (by Zooniverse)

citizen science/open data app

Galaxy Zoo: Hubble uses gorgeous imagery of hundreds of thousands of galaxies drawn from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope archive. To understand how these galaxies, and our own, formed we need your help to classify them according to their shapes — a task at which your brain is better than even the most advanced computer. If you’re quick, you may even be the first person in history to see each of the galaxies you’re asked to classify.

More than 250,000 people have taken part in Galaxy Zoo so far, producing a wealth of valuable data and sending telescopes on Earth and in space chasing after their discoveries. The images used in Galaxy Zoo: Hubble are more detailed and beautiful than ever, and will allow us to look deeper into the Universe than ever before. To begin exploring, click the ‘How To Take Part’ link above, or read The Story So Far to find out what Galaxy Zoo has achieved to date.

YouTube Spacelab (created by YouTube in partnership with NASA and many other organizations)

ideation/ citizen science/ creative visualization app

YouTube Space Lab is an amazing competition and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which you could be a part of. All you have to do is come up with an idea. It should be fun and you might learn some interesting stuff about space in the process. If that’s not enough, we’re giving you the chance to win some great prizes. From all the submissions we get, one winning team (or individual if you enter alone) will be chosen in each region of the world (The Americas; Europe, Middle-East and Africa; Asia-Pacific) from each of the two age categories (14 – 16, 17 – 18), making six regional winners overall. The regional winners will win a free trip to Washington, D.C. USA for a special event in March 2012, where they’ll also get to take an exhilarating zero-G flight, which lets you experience weightlessness, and they’ll each receive Lenovo IdeaPads. At the special event, two of the regional winners will be selected as global winners. The global winners’ experiments will be performed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station and they’ll win a amazing once-in-a-lifetime space experience of their choice.

 SpaceLab for IOS (created by Odyssey Space Research)

open software/ citizen science app

The purpose of SpaceLab for iOS is to demonstrate that an inexpensive consumer electronics device can perform tasks previously reserved for expensive single purpose devices.  Modern smart phones contain hardware once only found in expensive avionics.  Where an avionics box may have had a limited production run of 100′s or 1000′s of devices, a smart phone may have a similar engineer investment but a longer production run of millions, which significantly lowers the cost for users of the device.  The goal of this project is to significantly lower the cost of space flight and lower the barrier to access in space.

Real-time Climate Data Comparison Platform (written by World Bank and worked on at RHoK)

software/ open data/ social good app

In the absence of weather station data, Meteorological Satellite Information (MSI) is crucial to estimating local climate.  MSI is used worldwide to understand climate change effects, formulating strategies for disaster risk management, and analyzing the gap between water supply and demand. This knowledge, especially precipitation behavior – main supplier of water – allows countries to promote effective planning for fighting poverty. However, while MSI can estimate climate where there aren’t any weather station, the accuracy of MSI depends heavily on field data (weather stations on the ground) to calibrate outputs. Therefore, there is a contradiction here: if MSI requires field data for accuracy, how can MSI be useful in places where no weather station data is available? The first challenge is to bring together satellite and ground information for users in real time and create a tool which will produce a geospatial representation of both sources of information. The first challenge was already accomplished during the RhoK in Philadelphia. The second challenge is to generate an “averaged” geospatial map from the combination of MSI and the ground data.

Phone Sat (created in partnership between NASA Ames Research Center and Google)

open hardware/physical app

Not content just to have iPhones on the Station, Android phones had to join the fun too. The NexusOne PhoneSat project aims to determine if low-cost mobile phone components can withstand space travel. The phones must withstand extreme vibrations on the way to reaching orbit, function properly in a vacuum and operate at both extremely high and low temperatures. Go here to read more about the collaboration.

NASA Project KEWL (Kinect Engineering With Learning) (created at the NASA Johnson Space Center)

software/ creative visualization/ education app

Project KEWL is a joint project between NASA/JPL and NASA/JSC to stimulate interest of children in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and bring the NASA space exploration experience to the classroom, museum and ultimately the living room. Using the Kinect game controller KEWL allows children to engage in NASA’s missions in a fundamentally new way. KEWL allows children to experiment with gravity on Mars and the Moon; navigate through the International Space Station; fix a torn solar array on the ISS; drive a robot on Mars; visit an Asteroid; learn about the differences in gravity on different planets and control Robonaut 2 using their body as the input device.

Project KEWL complements NASA’s outreach investments in television, mobile platforms and the web by engaging the public through the rapidly expanding medium of console gaming. In 2008, 97% of teenagers played video games and 86% played on a home gaming console. As of March 2011, there have been more than 10 million Kinects sold. Project KEWL interacts with children on a platform on which they spend much of their time and teaches them information about NASA while they are having fun.

Project KEWL progressed from completely custom C++ code written in house to using a commercial game engine. The art work and 3D geometry models come from existing engineering work or are created by the KEWL development team. Six different KEWL applications have been demonstrated at nine different venues including schools, museums, conferences, and NASA outreach events . These demonstrations have allowed the developers the chance to interact with players and observe the gameplay mechanics in action . The lessons learned were then incorporated into the subsequent versions of the applications.


Do you know of other great space apps? Please leave us a comment and tell us about them so we can use them to inspire great, diverse development at International Space Apps Challenge!

About Ali

Community Advocate

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