Suggested Searches

9 min read

Space Apps 2019: Be Creative with NASA Data From Earth to Moon and Stars

The Swiss Alps sound dramatic, full of timpani drums and brass horns — so do the Andes Mountains in Peru. The grassland of Saskatchewan, Canada, is full of fast strings, and the Bahamas are a soothing piano solo. 

Fionnghuala O'Reilly
Fionnghuala O’Reilly is a local organizer for Space Apps in Washington, DC.
u003cstrongu003eu003cemu003eFionnghuala O’Reillyu003c/emu003eu003c/strongu003e

But these musical snippets were not composed or played by humans — not in the traditional sense. A group of tech-savvy Canadians created a program called SongSAT that translates NASA satellite images into sound for a competition called the NASA International Space Apps Challenge

Space Apps is the world’s largest global hackathon, now in its eighth year, open to everyone worldwide who is interested in using NASA data to tackle real problems on Earth and in space. Participants include coders, scientists, designers, storytellers, makers, builders, technologists, and anyone else interested of any age, including children. No educational or professional background in science or coding is required. In 2018, approximately 18,000 people joined in at 200 events in 75 countries, or in the virtual event. Registration is now open for the 2019 edition, which takes place from Oct. 18 to 20. 

Teams choose from a menu of “challenge questions” designed to appeal to a wide audience and spark a wide range of creative problem-solving tactics. This year’s challenges include the topics relate to the Moon, where NASA is sending the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024 through the Artemis program, as well as ideas for cleaning up orbital debris, visualizing sea-level rise, following NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope on its upcoming journey, and more. 

This event challenges the expert and the citizen scientist alike to come up with innovative solutions to real problems using NASA data.” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Through Space Apps, anyone can pursue an area that fires their curiosity and passion and contribute to NASA’s future missions and the world’s engagement with space.”

Space Apps has already inspired former participants and local organizers around the globe to broaden their interests and further their careers in new ways, with impacts lasting far beyond the hackathon weekend itself. 

Chisulo Mukabe with Local Co-Lead Alumanda Shakankale
Space Apps participant Chisulo Mukabe with local co-lead Alumanda Shakankale in Lusaka, Zambia, in 2018.
u003cstrongu003eu003cemu003eAlumanda Shakankaleu003c/emu003eu003c/strongu003e

Alumanda Shakankale, who lives in Lusaka, Zambia, and works in technical support at a laboratory, joined a Space Apps event in 2017 at a friend’s suggestion. At first, she thought the event would focus on complex space science she knew little about, but soon learned she could create a project addressing real-world scenarios on Earth. 

“The idea of solving the Earth’s challenges, solving problems, that’s what I wanted,” she said. And she was amazed by a presentation, given remotely by a NASA scientist at the event, about how satellite data can help predict when water levels will decrease at a dam in her city, which is essential for electricity production. 

Shakankale and her team created an app that calculates the power of solar panels in given locations.  Her efforts won an award for best local project that year. She enjoyed the event so much that she became a co-lead of the Lusaka event, and is currently planning the 2019 edition. Space Apps also inspired her to take an online course in data science. 

Marina Trajkovska and Anita Kirkovska
Marina Trajkovska, left, and Anita Kirkovska on a visit to Kennedy Space Center.
u003cstrongu003eu003cemu003eAnita Kirkovskau003c/emu003eu003c/strongu003e

For Macedonian organizers Anita Kirkovska and Marina Trajkovska, Space Apps became a way to develop a community in Orlando, Florida, where they are now living. Anita became a co-lead in Space Apps Macedonia in 2013, and is now organizing Space Apps in Orlando while earning a Master’s degree in computer science. Trajkovska works at a software company. Through generating interest in Space Apps events, they met many people involved in technology, science and space, and have decided to work on a startup together. 

The two are passionate about opening doors for participants beyond the event itself. Kirkovska brought the winning Space Apps team from Orlando to a conference in Miami to present their project. She and Trajkovska enjoy encouraging young people to get interested in space, and making connections between participants and the tech community, too.  

“The whole experience, it’s really meaningful,” Kirkovska said. “You get to help someone, bring them to the community, make them learn some new skills, get introduced to other companies that are searching talents. It’s a great circle of life where everybody gets something, and it’s amazing to see people grow within the community.”

Andrew Denio, who writes some of the Space Apps challenge questions, began participating in 2016 in Greensboro, North Carolina. His group wanted to create a wearable device for astronauts to gather and send back data from remote locations, such as the Moon or Mars. They ended up developing a system incorporating a video gaming glove, and won Best Mission Concept for the international challenge that year.

At the time, Denio was a contractor for the U.S. Army. After participating in Space Apps for two years, he applied for an information technology job at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and started at the beginning of 2019. While Space Apps didn’t directly lead to his NASA employment, he did talk about Space Apps during his interview and considers it a valuable experience for his career. 

“Knowing the skills of your teammates and knowing the dynamics of your relationship with them I think helps in those stressful situations when you’re under a tight deadline,” Denio said. 

Andrew Denio
Andrew Denio at Space Apps 2018.
u003cstrongu003eu003cemu003eRaeley Stevensonu003c/emu003eu003c/strongu003e

To write challenges, Denio reaches out to NASA scientists to consult with them about what might be both possible and practical for a two-day hackathon – such as a sensor that could be used on Mars. Last year he also wrote a challenge that led participants to imagine their own version of the “golden record,” a disk containing the sights and sounds of Earth that both of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft carry. For Space Apps 2018, teams could choose to their own time capsules to represent humanity to the rest of the galaxy.   

“It’s fun to get creative and to write it in such a way that you allow the participants to get creative. So, I try not to give them too much direction on what I’m expecting, [leaving] it open-ended to see what kind of creative solution they can come up with,” he said.

Alex McVittie
Space Apps participant Alex McVittie, shown at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, helped develop an app called SongSAT, which was a global winner in the international award competition.
u003cstrongu003eu003cemu003eAlex McVittieu003c/emu003eu003c/strongu003e

Sometimes teams change direction in the middle of the hackathon. Alex McVittie of Waterloo, Ontario, thought he and his collaborators would create an app relating to testing soil permeability and flood risk. But around Saturday afternoon on hackathon weekend, they decided to switch gears. 

The result was called SongSAT, which was a global winner in the international award competition. SongSAT works by taking one of NASA’s satellite images of the Earth and dropping a random sample of 300 points on it, then identifying each point as one of four kinds of terrain: mountains, grassland, forest or water. Then, based on the dominant kind of terrain, an algorithm chooses which notes form the melody. The team preselected instruments, notes and chords for each type of land mass. 

“One of the big drives is to cater towards people with visual impairment, allowing them to enjoy the beauty of the Earth,” McVittie said.

The team is currently building out a website with a clickable world map that will allow users to click anywhere and see a satellite image paired with a sound clip. They are also working with feedback from people from the Waterloo community with visual impairments. The project has also helped McVittie, who plays jazz music in his spare time, to get over writing blocks. When he’s stuck, the algorithm gives inspiration. 

Some local Space Apps events include programmed activities to inspire participants in their thinking about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In Washington D.C., data science engineer and model Fionnghuala O’Reilly organized a Women in Tech panel for last year’s event, highlighting women with successful STEM careers and the steps they took to build them. This year at George Washington University, O’Reilly’s Space Apps event will do another Women in Tech panel. Additionally, O’Reilly, who has won the Miss Universe Ireland title, will bring the Miss Universe Ireland team and representatives from the organization to the hackathon in October.  

O’Reilly is passionate about breaking stereotypes about what STEM professionals look like, and wants to encourage Space Apps participants to create unique projects without feeling limited. Her own mentors, including Rakia Finley, one of the women speaking on the panel she organized, have encouraged her to think bigger in her endeavors and develop confidence. 

“I have a really large curly Afro, and I’m quite tall, and sometimes when I walk into these rooms I can have a loud bubbly personality, and they helped me learn how to own all of those characteristics as opposed to being shy or intimidated when I walk into rooms and I see no one that looks anything like me,” she said.  

Bidushi Bhattacharya
Bidushi Bhattacharya is a local Space Apps organizer in Singapore.
u003cstrongu003eu003cemu003eBidushi Bhattacharyau003c/emu003eu003c/strongu003e

Inspiring young women to go into STEM is also a big driver for Bidushi Bhattacharya, a former spacecraft engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech’s IPAC in Pasadena, California, who organizes Space Apps in Singapore. Last year, she hosted a team of young women who created an app that uses satellite data to spot forest fires, and watched their initial tentativeness turn to enthusiasm by the end. She hopes to start an incubator to get great ideas for space technologies off the ground in Singapore, which has no national space agency. Space Apps is one way to encourage people to think up these kinds of ideas. 

“We just need to get local people to think about space-related careers as a tangible possibility, and that’s my goal,” she said.

Several local Space Apps leads emphasize the importance of having a mix of skills and backgrounds on a team. 

Shakankale’s advice to this year’s participants is: “The more diverse a team is, the better. When coming to the Space Apps Challenge, try and get people from different walks of life, because then the thinking becomes different.”

Sign up for Space Apps at:

By Elizabeth Landau
NASA Headquarters, Washington



Last Updated
Sep 29, 2023
Tricia Talbert