NASA Space Apps Challenge at Hursley

This weekend was NASA Space Apps Challenge again – a weekend space-themed hackathon organised by NASA. It runs around the world, and this year IBM Hursley hosted one again.

I was in a small team with Faith. There were a variety of challenges to choose from and we chose Orbital Scrap Metal which was about educating the public about orbital debris, or space junk – explaining what it is, where it comes from, and the potential impact it has.

We created a game to help kids learn about space debris while playing. It’s fun, educational, and is all driven by real live data about space debris – each time you play, you interact with different real debris items.

We used Scratch, because I wanted Faith to be in control of the design and creation of the game.

That said, I do think that child-friendly tools like Scratch and Minecraft work really well at hackathons even for adults as they’re great prototyping environments for quickly exploring an idea.

This is a quick demo of our game in action.

It starts off by explaining what space debris is, and setting a little context about the scale of the issue.

Then you pilot a rocket ship and have to control it to catch the pieces of floating space debris.

You get a point for each piece of debris you collect.

The rocket ship has three different tools to collect debris, a bucket that can only collect small debris, a grabby-hand that can only collect medium-sized debris, and a net for collecting large debris.

When you successfully collect some debris, information about the debris you collected is displayed for a few seconds. You have to try to remember it because there will be questions about it later!

Once you run out of fuel, it’s quiz time.

Some of the questions are about space debris in general.

Some of the questions are about the space debris that you caught.

Once the quiz finishes, you get a game-over screen based on how well you did.

If you didn’t do well, the game displays a message that describes the sort of problems that could be caused if space debris continues to get worse.

It’s a fun little game, and there are a few little ways that Faith tried to make it educational.

The quiz makes you pay attention to the information displayed about each piece of debris you catch. And after you play it a few times, you start to spot patterns – such as that it seems that the majority of debris pieces being tracked seem to have come from the US or China. You start to learn the different types of space debris that there are, how long some of the pieces have been orbiting for, the different sizes of debris there are, and much more.

Even the idea for throwing a net at the large debris came from an article we found about some research being done at the University of Surrey.

While Faith was in charge of the game, my job was to get her live data to make it all real.

A big part of the NASA Space Apps Challenge is the way they promote the different data sets and APIs that are available to address the challenges.

All the space debris in the game is based on a TLE API from space-track.org that returns the latest tracking events for orbital debris. The location of the debris and the direction it’s going in are both used in the game, based on the API data about real debris events.

And for each piece of debris returned in the TLE API response, I look up the information about it in SATCAT, which is how I got the information displayed in the info panel. Even the size of the debris as displayed in the game is based on a classification of the size of the debris item returned by the SATCAT API.

I focused on figuring out how to drive the APIs, and package them up as a Scratch extension that Faith could use.

She focused on making the game, with me pairing with her on a few of the more complicated bits.

We had a fantastic weekend, and I’m very grateful to the organizers for making it all happen.

It was great to let Faith go through the hackathon process. Even in our very simple way, she got to see what it’s like to choose a challenge to tackle, ideastorm for what we could create, make something in a hurry, use APIs to power it with real data… even sleeping on the floor with a bunch of random people.

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