At EchoUser we thrive on making the complex simple, and what is more complex than space? Space comprises many wonders, but unsuspecting danger can be hidden just beyond our sights, and one such hidden wonder is asteroids. For most of us we go about our daily business probably not giving asteroids much thought. However, asteroids represent a real threat to humankind. If a stray asteroid slams into Earth, it can alter the geological history of our planet and evolution of life. In fact, 66 million years ago one did just that, when a single asteroid caused three-quarters of all living things to perish on Earth.
Well, organizations such as the Minor Planet Center and NASA are working on incredible projects to increase our knowledge of how asteroids move and act, continuously collecting massive amounts of data. However, asteroid data is necessarily complex. One of the greatest obstacles facing folks working to make sure we are not surprised by asteroids is actually understanding the vast amounts of data being collected.
To help solve this challenge, EchoUser has teamed up with representatives from the Minor Planet Center, Maui Maker, SpaceGAMBIT, FURTHER by Design and New Relic to organize the Asteroid Hackathon. The event is part of NASA’s larger Asteroid Grand Challenge project, and it is set to take place October 25 at the SETI Intitute in Mountain View, Calif.
The Asteroid Hackathon invites the brilliant minds of Silicon Valley and beyond to save our planet by hacking asteroid data and turning it into digestible information for citizen scientists. The hackathon aims to give citizen scientists, engineers, designers and amateur astronomers access to an asteroid data set so they can bring new insight to data patterns, and encourage additional observations and characterization.
The best ideas come from collaboration, so we are calling for teams of three people covering UX, engineering and astronomy skill sets to participate. The winning team will be awarded a cash prize to further develop its idea.
Recently, we had an opportunity to sit down with a couple of our co-hosts, Jerry Isdale, a long time software engineer and founder of Maui Makers, and Jose Luis Galache, an astronomer at the Minor Planet Center, to discuss space hacking and the Asteroid Grand Challenge, the inspiration behind the upcoming hackathon.
EchoUser: The Asteroid Hackathon event is tied to NASA’s larger Asteroid Grand Challenge. Before we dive into the upcoming event, let’s talk about the goal of NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge.
Jerry: The Asteroid Grand Challenge is one of NASA’s programs to get an open call for technologies for the space program. The basic goal is to find all asteroid threats and know what to do about them. There are over 600,000 asteroids currently known, with more being discovered every day. A percentage of these asteroids are “near-earth” asteroids, and a percentage of these near-earth asteroids can actually hit the earth. In the past, there have been large and small ones that have hit the earth in the form of asteroid strikes or large meteor-asteroid strikes. In fact, two years ago an asteroid hit Russia, with no warning. It blew up in the sky over Chelyabinsk causing significant damage.
The goal of the project is to find these-types of asteroids in space before they blow up, and figure out what we can do about them. The Asteroid Grand Challenge was in the planning process for quite a while prior to the explosion in Russia, but the incident validates why we need this program.
EchoUser: Sometimes all the stars line up in your favor, literally! How important are these types of events for our understanding of asteroids?
Jerry: They are very important. The damages and costs of the asteroid explosions always catch people’s attention.
EchoUser: What are you looking to accomplish with the upcoming Asteroid Hackathon?
Jose Luis: The event is not particularly about astronomy. We want to bridge the gap between scientists and the public, and have the opportunity to educate both sides on what is going on in space. The Minor Planet Center, in particular, wants to be able to share information, not just data, to educate the public and anyone that visits our websites. We want there to be more opportunities for people to come across our website and learn something – this can happen if the information is more clear.
Jerry: We want people to be able to hunt for asteroids and find information about asteroids with ease. The event is a great way to push that forward. The Minor Planet Center has created a much more easily accessible database, but they are in need of a user interface. The idea behind the hackathon and other events we have planned this year is to help make it easier for people to access the database and information.
EchoUser: Let’s talk data. Is working with the large amount of data slowing down the process of understanding what is going on in space?
Jose Luis: We are always looking for new and better ways to get the data we have here at Minor Planet Center out to people who are browsing the web. While we have lots of data, we need more information. We need to create tools that can transform data into useful information so someone who is not an astronomer can look at the data and learn something from it.
Our data is already public. That is one of our missions – all of our observations and predictions for asteroid flybys are always public. But we don’t have that much information that someone who is not an astronomer is going to understand. We want to give the public an opportunity to really understand the data we have.
EchoUser: What are your expectations surrounding the hackathon?
Jose Luis: We are hoping to get a good number of creative people who have hacking skills and know how to turn data into information. To be honest, I have no idea what to expect with these computer programmers. I think one good thing that comes out of these large scale events is grouping together a big number of smart, creative people — they are bound to come up with something.
EchoUser: What do you think the UX perspective is going to bring?
Jose Luis: We are a very small group without anyone specifically specializing in UX. Our goal for UX is to present things more clearly so people can digest a lot of data, but we do not know how to do this effectively.
If you are interested in helping to save our planet by tackling complex asteroid data and making it digestible for the broader community with unique data mashups, mind-blowing UI visualizations, or something even better, please email email@example.com and we will get you more information on how to submit a team for the Asteroid Hackathon. We will also continue to share details here on our blog, so check back regularly.