It was the biggest hackathon in the world apparently. 83 different locations around the globe hosting space fans, coders, designers and more as we tackled a range of pre-set challenges. Well, that’s what most people did, but when I signed up to attend the London event I didn’t realise that they’d give us challenges, so I set about coming up with an idea to bring with me. I’m not a coder, but I am a fan of space, so I wanted to be able to bring something to whichever team I ended up working with.
After Maj Tim Peake spoke at the British Interplanetary Society, I spoke to him a bit more about his NEEMO mission. Working in specially designed underwater habitat he spent some time testing out iPad apps that might be of use to astronauts in space. I discovered that there were some fairly simple tasks that still hadn’t been optimised in space, and when your time is accounted for minute by minute, saving that time is a pretty big deal.
With Commander Chris Hadfield sending down daily photos of the planet to great acclaim on Earth, I wondered if there was something that could be done to optimise this process. That’s where the idea behind T-10 was born.
I checked with Chris whether it might genuinely be of use and he seemed to think so. Now I just had to work out how to make it a reality.
The first step on the journey took place not in London, but in Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland. I’d accepted an invitation from ESA to go and see aurora with some spacetweeps. Escaping temperatures of -15C, a few of us had lunch in a Mexican restaurant. The bizarre surroundings were not lost on us, and as I chatted to fellow space enthusiast João Neves about his dream of working in space, I told him the adventure started there. “Remember this moment, sitting in the Arctic circle, easting burritos, this is where it begins” I said, half jokingly. I think it is important to follow your dreams, and sometimes you need a little push to do so. I decided that I would do what I could to put João in touch with the sort of people that might make his dream a reality and encourage him to look out for space jobs.
Back in London, I signed up for the Space Apps Challenge, and then it dawned on me. I would need someone like João to make my idea into reality. I emailed and said that if he wanted to come and work on a cool project, I would give him a place to stay.
NASA’s Chris Gerty would be at the London event I discovered. What a treat, I’d met him before while chasing rockets and doing stories on NASA. In fact, it was down to burritos that we had met. I chatted to him in the queue at Firebirds burritos in Houston because he had a NASA sticker on his laptop.
As the event began, people gathered in teams around the suggested projects. I sent out a tweet to see if anyone fancied joining João and I on our quest to get an app to space. That’s when Ketan Majmudar got in touch. We’d met at the BBC some time ago when we went to see Bill Thompson’s radio show BBC Click being recorded. Small world.
We got down to work, with João looking at the data, and Ket planning the app and me scribbling notes on post-its and temporary whiteboard sheets. It was real. We were doing it. What’s more, we were all excited.
As the guys got on with some technical wrangling, I dashed around, excited. It was around this point that Dario Lofish arrived. I overheard him saying to one of the organisers that he’d just got there. “Join our team!” I said, excitedly, before speedily talking him through several ideas at once. He came over and said hello, then we said he should take a look around in case something else took his fancy, rather than just succumb to my ambush like that. I secretly hoped that he would come back to us though. As a designer he would bring an extra skillset to our team, and anyway, it’s always nice to have someone else to talk to when the others were doing the hard coding.
We talked through the app structure, designed the rough layout of the screens and reported back to Ket and João. Things were really coming together. It was super exciting.
We had dinner, we had a beer, and then we found out that what we had thought was the deadline to present our work was actually the deadline for us to leave the space. Uh-oh. It would be a late night.
João and I got the nightbus home and Dario heroically promised that we’d have a presentation ready for the next day. Arriving the next morning we were all tired, but hyped. Dario’s slides were amazing, Ket and João had created a prototype of the app. Suddenly my mad idea was a real programme on an iPad. I was set to present to the group. I really didn’t want to let the guys down. Their incredible work on T-10 deserved to be recognised. I was shaking slightly, it was down to me to convince everyone else that our app deserved to win.
Wearing my lion slippers, I leapt about on stage, extolling the virtues of the app, and trying to engage the audience with the product. Ket showed off what we had already coded and then there was nothing left to do but wait as the other teams showed off their fantastic work and ideas. From mapping the dark side of the moon, to a social network based around keeping chickens, cubesats to space holder images for website development, there was an amazing range of stuff.
Grabbing for the Red Bull to keep us going, we waited for the judge’s verdict. First, honourable mentions, then, the ones that would go through to the international judging stage. As I heard the words “T-10” called out I couldn’t believe it. We won? We WON! Oh me oh my. I already felt like a winner with the team I had around me, and what we’d achieved, but we’d actually won. Had we? I had to ask. The team sitting behind us, “People of the Soil” had also won and were in equal disbelief. I checked whether it could be true, but yes, we had, we really had won. The next stage began now. Well, after a celebratory drink at least. To the pub to celebrate! Wowweeee!
There are plenty of space-related apps to check out in the Google Play store. I decided to download a bunch, play with them for a bit and share the results. They are all freebies, this is not an exhaustive list, it’s just the start of a potentially useful list for other Android Space fans. I’ve separated apps into categories for ease of use. NASA has several official apps, but I’ve only spotted one from ESA. Perhaps there’s a gap in the market for them there.
The main NASA app gives you quick access to NASA images, videos and tweets, as well as information about its missions, centres and different programmes.
This takes information about your location and so the sighting information is tailored to you. The news and features sections is also a handy gateway to the latest news from NASA, and can be separated into areas of interest, such as commercial spaceflight, solar system, ISS etc. You need to be connected to the internet in order for this app to work, but it makes for a nice way of exploring the mountains of information that NASA puts out. Worth a download.
Things that you might find particularly useful are the list of launch dates (under the “missions” tab) and a list of possible times to view the space station.
This app has some cool features, like checking out the astronauts’ timelines (as you can do online on the ISS live website), though it does seem to freeze up a bit for me. You have the option of following the current position of the space station and see the Earth from its perspective. It’s a nice way of making it “real”, seeing what the astronauts are flying over, right now, is quite special. The other nice thing this app offers, if you can coax into not crashing, is a 3D model of the entire space station, with different elements coloured to show whose they are. You can choose to see only the Russian modules, or the Canadian elements, for example, or see what the station would look like without them. Zoom functionality, labels and ability to spin it around to see it from other angles are all useful. I do like this, but be warned that it needs a net connection and a bit of patience.
NASA Desert Rats App (2011)
This app lets you explore a 3D visualisation of the Desert Rats base. By moving your character around you unlock badges when you discover items such as the space exploration vehicle, these also give you a summary of what they are. You can also choose to explore the different scientific sites that the Desert Rats were studying. It gives a nice insight into the scale of the project and may be a good stepping off point to encourage you to find out more.
NASA’s Integrated Space Weather Analysis (iSWA)
This app allowes you to view Cygnets (observational and modelled space weather products, since you ask) and update them with the latest information from SDO, STEREO and SOHO. There isn’t really any information about what the images are showing you, or background about the spacecraft responsible for collecting the data, but even if you’re not an expert, the pictures of the sun are pretty incredible. The more you know/understand about space weather, the missions and the graphs this apps include, the more spectacular it would be. For now I just enjoy the fact that I can see up to date pictures of the sun’s activity on my phone, which is, I think you’ll agree, pretty amazing.
Lots and lots of lovely images! Sorted as the latest images released, highest rated or by category. You can favourite images, save them to your device or set them as wallpaper, and share them via Twitter/Facebook. Clicking on the “i” gives you information about what the image is of, how and when it was taken, and who should be credited. You can also find out more by clicking “more info” and it will take you to the image catalogue online. The main problem with this app is that once you’ve been tantalised by the amazing thumbnails, loading the full image seems to take an age. You can go to settings and change the resolution of that you want the images to download, but I got bored of waiting to see the full screen versions. Patience is a virtue Kate…
HIAD (Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator)
This NASA app is actually a little game that lets you practise landing something back on Earth from the International Space Station, using a hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (HIAD). I didn’t know much about these before, but this engaging little app is giving me an appreciation of how they can be used and the importance of timing your de-orbit burn to get you close to your landing site. It’s a shame this doesn’t have a catchier title, it’s a really nice app and I’m enjoying playing with it and learning something at the same time. Check out this NASA microsite for the latest on HIAD development.
Herschel Quick Look
This app apparently gives you access to the ”latest processed quick look image and meta data” from Herschel. If you get further than downloading it and getting errors let me know. Looking at Play Store reviews it’s either great, or doesn’t work. Sadly for me, it’s definitely the latter.
ISS detector uses your phone’s geolocation data to give you a handy list of when the space station will next be flying (visibly) overhead. The added bonus is that you can set it to make a noise at a specified time before a sighting. I chose ten minutes since that is long enough for me to grab my camera and dash outside. Don’t worry about it disturbing you in the night, it will honour any “silent time” settings on your phone. In addition you can select information on Iridium flares. To remove ads you can donate one Euro ($1.40) to say thank you to the developer. There are also a range of extensions that you can purchase that will enable detection of amateur radio satellites, famous objects (eg Hubble) or comets and extensions. Useful little app this one, especially since @Twisst has gone quiet for me.
This app, created by AGI, the folk behind the professionally used STK orbit simulation software appears currently to be available only on Android (take that Apple fans!). It is an augmented reality app that allows you to see which satellites are fly above you. You can choose what you want it to show, the ISS, potentially visible objects, amateur satellites, recently launched objects, or, if you want to be amazed, try “all active satellites, including Geostationary belt”). You can also search for particular satellites that you might be interested in, such as the UK’s first Cubesat, STRaND1. If your chosen satellite is not currently visible, click “Lookup” and it will link you to a bunch of information sources and the option to display the groundtrack. The groundtrack of the satellite is basically a line over the world that shows where over the world the satellite has passed, and where it currently is. Pretty nice to be able to look at a world map and say “ooh, the ISS is over the West Coast of America” etc. This is free, informative and even if like me, you’re more into human spaceflight than satellites, it’s pretty eye-opening to see just how much stuff is up there.
Solar Max Lite
This is the free version of a fuller app. It uses realtime data from SDO, STEREO and SOHO. You can select the number of frames, the resolution and time between each frame, though I haven’t quite worked out what difference this makes! What this app does have, which makes it more user-friendly for non-experts, is the ability to click on a question mark and find out a bit about the spacecraft/image data/instruments. Once again, even if you don’t know much about what it all means, real-time images of the sun are COOL.
Not created by NASA, this app gives you a collection of sound clips that range from the famous Apollo moments (“Houston, we’ve had a problem”) to the comments made when the final shuttle missions STS135 landed. It also has Sputnik’s beeps and Saturn radio emissions. If you hold down on any sound you have the option to make it into a ringtone or notification sound, though I’ve not found anything that I consider suitable for this myself. I’m a sound geek as well as a radio geek, so this appeals to me. That said, the selection of sounds is limited, and they could have perhaps been edited a little more smartly.
This app simulates the orbits of planets or “particles”. It could be quite a useful tool if you were learning about the effect of gravity on variously sized objects, but it’s not very user friendly. You can add different sized objects, trace their paths and watch as they smash together, but there’s little text to tell you what all the icons mean and you feel somewhat thrown in the deep end. I played around for a bit, but I think this is one for the uninstall pile for me. If you do get the hang of it, there is the option to purchase dust clouds etc, but it’s not for me.
This actually isn’t about space in the sense of outer-space, but it’s an academic study from Princeton that I thought I would mention. Nice to be able to help some scientists with their research after all. The research is into human movement and spatial segregation and the researchers want to collect information about your movement over the course of the week. Past this point you will be able to collect the information for yourself (and keep it private) if you wish. There’s a consent form and information about anonymising your data. I’m game… are you?
The Space Race
A bit of fun, this quiz gives you 50 questions about the US/Soviet space race mixed with a few other space-related questions. The app design is a bit horrible and it will offer you a bunch of other quizzes, but the questions themselves are pretty good. You actually need to have some knowledge to answer them so if you want to test your space-geek credentials give it a go. You can always uninstall it afterwards (or perhaps try the science and engineering week quiz?).
Angry Birds Space
You don’t need me to tell you about Angry Birds Space – developed with input from NASA the birds are beholden to the gravitational pull of various objects and have to smash the green piggies as usual. With a launch from the Space Station, by astronaut Don Pettit, it’s worth a little play. Nice thing is, on Android, Angry Birds is free. Bazinga!
TMA-08M took the latest ISS crew members up to the space station in record time. Usually it takes a couple of days before the small cramped Soyuz capsule is able to dock with the International Space Station. 28th March 2013 saw the launch of Expedition 35 from Baikonur, which was able to dock with the space station in just six hours. With the help of some photos from the ground and space, some smart sound recording by Chris Hadfield and a few news articles for good luck – here’s how the story went…
This is not my usual style of blog post, but I thought I’d have a play and try to capture some of the moments of my latest #SpaceNomad adventure – a trip to Finland for an ESA Space Weather Seminar and a chance to see the northern lights.
It’s wearing everything that won’t fit in your suitcase. It’s meeting new people in a tractor themed restaurant. It’s snow-closed airports and “wish you were here”s. It’s Norwegian Air and how to pronounce 6,000th.
It’s Santa Claus’s airport and snow glistening like diamonds. It’s clear skies and below zero temperatures. It’s thermals, tog-rated socks, space t-shirts, retro woollen jumpers, wind-proof fleece, body warmer and then struggle to zip up your coat. It’s turning down “the most northerly MacDonald’s” and having burritos instead.
It’s seeing old friends and making new ones. It’s Arktikum and cloud berries, ice-sculpture and Arctic foxes.
It’s walking on a frozen river and looking at the cracks. It’s overheating when you get back inside.
It’s cloud berry liqueur and sautéed reindeer. It’s “I’m 26″ and “you can call me Jake”. It’s midnight aurora hunting in Rovaniemi and frozen hair.
It’s cold but exciting. It’s first glimpses and shared experience. It’s reindeer for breakfast. It’s Arktikum and architecture. Intricate colourful traditional costumes and Saami shamen. It’s studying the Arctic and finding out where the Arctic circle is. It’s “hooray there’s wifi” and time to tweet. It’s space weather and what causes it. It’s black outs and damaged satellites.
It’s Don Pettit and photography from space. It’s “ooh”, “ahhhh”, “amazing!” and “wow, just wow”. It’s beauty that makes your heart race and leave you speechless. It’s aurora set to “walking in the air”.
It’s the cutting edge of computing and star-mapping. It’s RTs and conversation.
It’s postcards for Christmas and Christmas in March. It’s one foot in and one foot out of the Arctic circle. It’s Santa’s house and let’s go meet him. It’s “how did he know that?” and okay we’ll buy the pictures.
It’s grinning until your face hurts and running for lunch in a cafe. It’s reindeer hot-dogs and “I don’t think there is any reindeer in this”.
It’s bus rides and great conversations. It’s Sodankylä and the Finnish Meteorological Institute. It’s space situational awareness including space debris. It’s a 32m satellite dish and the all-sky camera. It’s squeaky snow that lets you know how cold it is. It’s sparkling wine with wooden cup holders and “Eating someone else’s reindeer”. It’s delicious warming soup. It’s wine and coffee and the “let’s go aurora hunting”. It’s the aurora house and a chair for a queen. It’s stories of fox fire and dead ancestors playing football with a walrus skull. It’s the science of space weather and its beautiful results.
It’s “time for *all* your layers” and “wow, look at that!”. It’s 25 second exposures and excitement at the results. It’s a helping hand in the snow and “look! look! look!”. It’s a warming fire and very warming drinks. It’s Lappish wooden cups and limited edition space vodka. It’s connecting, friendship and toasting a new space station commander. It’s arcs of aurora and sinking into snow. It’s clear skies and awe. It’s magical, special, humbling and wonderful. It’s feeling alive and being glad to be the SpaceNomad. It’s indescribable, it’s breath-taking, it’s real, it’s “thank you all for being part of this” and “can’t wait until next time.
Want to learn more about Space Weather and ESA’s Space Surveillance and tracking? Listen to these interviews:
Follow @SpaceKate for more adventures.
It was a wet February evening as I set out to hear British astronaut Maj Timothy Peake address a packed house at the British Interplanetary Society (BIS). Introduced as the first truly British non-commercial astronaut, a subtle smile creeps onto his face when it is mentioned that the UK government is paying for him though their contribution to ESA – a somewhat controversial point since at the time of his selection, the UK didn’t contribute to any part of the ESA human spaceflight budget.
One of the lucky (and extremely talented) few from 8,500 people who applied, Peake is now a full fledged member of the astronaut class informally known as “shenanigans”. Also in this class are Italians Luca Parmitano and Samantha Cristoforetti who have both been assigned to ISS flights in the coming years.
“Shenanigans” is not necessarily the first word you’d think of in relation to Tim Peake. His quietly polite enthusiasm, obvious dedication to his military career and measured tones are so quintessentially “British”. But there’s more to this gent than his (at times) reserved tone might suggest.
During his talk, Peake explains that the international space station is the current focus for space agencies, adding that he thinks it likely the ISS will be extended to 2025 (current plans see funding only up to 2020). This is something he’ll surely be hoping for, since ESA places on station are limited and the longer the ISS is functional, the higher his chances of being assigned to a mission.
In addition to his astronaut training, Peake has been working as Eurocom, the European version of NASA’s Capcom, relaying information to the ISS crew from one of the many international control centres. “International collaboration is great” he says, “it brings stability”, but with centres all around the world it is also very complex.
As he continues his talk, little flickers of his personality start to shine through – the intimate space at the BIS allowing him to relax a little. Peake explains that they have Soyuz training in Star City in Russia. The European seat is traditionally the left seat in the cramped capsule, while they joke that the right-hand seat is the “tourist” seat. “It’s a wonderful mix of new and old technology” he says of the Soyuz, though he adds that it’s “an ergonomical nightmare!”. “Their spacecraft are like their helicopters” he says of the Russian tech, “they’re solid”. Given that the Soyuz capsule comes hurtling back down to Earth at the end of the mission with a precious cargo of astronauts, being solid is not something to be knocked.
He talks about EVA (extra-vehicular activity – “spacewalk”) training, first in Cologne, then Russia, then at the enormous Neutral Bouyancy Lab facility in Houston. Astronauts do their spacewalk training underwater to simulate weightlessness and to get used to moving in the large space suits. “I really really love this training” says Peake, “I was surprised by how physically and mentally challenging it is – you certainly sleep well after six hours in the suit!”.
Peake speaks diplomatically about his selection to the ESA astronaut corps, a decision that may have put a few noses out of joint since the UK had not contributed the human spaceflight budget when he was selected. He was ready for a negative atmosphere when he joined, but didn’t find it. He says ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain is very good at understanding that countries contribute to different pots of money at ESA, describing this attitude as “refreshing”. “The real test will be flight assignment” he says, knowing that positive sentiments are one thing, and confirmation of a spaceflight another.
Could the recent decision for the UK to put money into the Orion/ATV project help him get into space? “The ESA ministerial council was very good, for now, and for the future” he says, “I really hope that we get a European astronaut on Orion”. He continues “I would love it if it were me, however France and Germany paid a lot in too”. Peake reiterates his hopes for a European astronaut to get place on Orion, saying that it will be hard won since there are only four seats and there will be fewer missions. I note that despite the excitement in the room about the potential for a British astronaut, Peake repeatedly says “European”. Is this due to his training, his modesty, his diplomacy – or are we finally in a position to be proud of our involvement with ESA? It’s probably a mix of all those things, and I think that this international spirit should be embraced.
After the talk there is a rush for people to shake his hand and ask him to sign things. Peake takes this all in his stride, smiling as each new person reaches the front of the queue. I present him with the official patch of the Space Tweep Society in recognition of his engaging tweets. After half an hour of this it’s time to retire to the pub and I’m pleased that he joins us to continue the conversation in a more informal setting.
There’s a definite sparkle in his eye as he tucks into his steak and ale pie, answering questions from all angles between mouthfuls. I like this more relaxed side of him, and I hope that it won’t get too lost under the need for protocol and decorum in future. To coin his phrase: “The real test will be flight assignment” – I think we all agree that that’s one time it would certainly be okay to lose the stiff upper lip.