NASA is crowdsourcing new technologies to hunt down asteroids, track astronauts' nutrition, send emails to the International Space Station, and discover new moons of Saturn.
The space agency has leveraged Topcoder's community of 630,000 data scientists, developers, and designers to build new solutions to help solve complex problems NASA faces. Some of these projects are slated to be deployed in the next year.
"Basically we started saying why can't we tap into the creativity and spirit of humanity to solve problems we care about?" Narinder Singh, president of topcoder and cofounder of parent company Appirio, told Fast Company. Topcoder's partnership with the Harvard NASA Tournament Lab has yielded thousands of submissions from more than 20 countries. In three years, members have been awarded $1.5 million from various governmental agencies, including NASA.
Some of the topcoder projects NASA is testing include:
Asteroid Data Hunter: NASA kicked off its Asteroid Data Hunter contest in March, offering $35,000 in awards to citizen scientists who can develop algorithms to identify asteroids. Singh said the project is moving on to its second phase August 11. "Not only are we improving the algorithm, we'll potentially create software around it," he added.
ISS Food Intake Tracker: You might recognize ISS FIT from its brief appearance at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference back in June. The app helps monitor the diet of astronauts, who are susceptible to nutrient deficiencies and bone loss. NASA is still testing the prototype, but it's due to take flight to the International Space Station next spring.
Planetary Data Systems: The topcoder community is actively building algorithms to analyze imaging from Cassini, a spacecraft on a extended mission orbiting Saturn. The goal is to understand Saturn's ring composition and potentially find new moons. Results of this ongoing challenge will be announced in the fall.
Disruption Tolerant Networking: You might not think twice about dashing off emails here on planet Earth, but it's a challenge to beam that message 44,000 miles to the International Space Station. The topcoder community has spent the past year designing and implementing NASA's open-source Disruption Tolerant Networking Protocol, which converts data, such as email, to bundles, instead of packages, for more reliable and secure transmission. Topcoder is also hoping to use this technology to build a platform for astronauts to engage with people on Earth, Singh added.
NASA's not the only governmental agency to use topcoder's community for new tech solutions. In September, the Environmental Protection Agency will showcase the top two submissions for the ToxCast Prediction Challenge, which uses algorithms to predict the lowest doses in which chemicals cause adverse effects.
[Image: Flickr user NASA's Earth Observatory]