NASA Is Contest-Sourcing Solutions to Its Deepest Problems

From astronaut diets to asteroid detection, the space agency wants your algorithms.

Aug 10 2014, 9:00am


In 2009, NASA launched its very own TopCoder challenge in cooperation with researchers from Harvard Business School and London Business School. The competition, hosted by the Johnson Spaceflight Center's Space Life Sciences Directorate, invited the competitive software development community TopCoder to create algorithms to optimize medical kits for long-duration spaceflight. This first contest spawned the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL), which now regularly hosts contests wherein the TopCoder community competes to solve problems. Coders get to win prizes and NASA gets to take advantage of crowdsourced expertise. It's win-win, and up next, NASA is crowdsourcing solutions to deep problems like asteroid tracking, deep-space networking, and astronaut health.

TopCoder, part of the global cloud consultancy company Appirio, is a company that administers contests in software architecture and development. Since its inception in 2001, TopCoder has provided a stable infrastructure for coding competitions that see members submit solutions to given problems. Currently, the community consists of some 630,000 data scientists, developers, and designers. For some, the competitions are a hobby and for others its a way of gaining experience in the field before entering the job market. But in any case it makes the community a wildly skilled and successful one that saves the space agency the cost of hiring in-house developers to tackle the same problems.

"As NASA continues to push the boundaries of human imagination and innovation, we have seen the value in utilizing a citizen-based professional crowd to complement our internal efforts and solve complex real-world challenges," said Jason Crusan, the director of NASA's Tournament Lab. "Tapping into a diverse pool of the world's top technical talent has not only resulted in new and innovative ways to advance technologies to further space exploration, but has also led to a whole new way of thinking for NASA, and other government agencies, providing us with an additional set of on-demand tools to tackle complex projects."

Now, NASA is hoping to tap into that expertise to solve some of its biggest problems—like hunting for and tracking asteroids.

The Asteroid Data Hunter challenge is part of the ongoing Asteroid Grand Challenge series running on TopCoder in cooperation with Planetary Resources Inc. (PRI). This particular challenge is tasking the TopCoder community with developing an algorithm that can find and validate asteroids, giving scientists a better picture of the rocks that are threatening our planet while cutting down on the number of falsely identified asteroids. 

Phase two of the challenge is launching tomorrow, with the aim of finding an algorithm that will increase the sensitivity of asteroid detection software. The ultimate goal of this contest is to develop a program that anyone can run on an everyday laptop, meaning scientists will be able to use the processing power of willing citizens to help create a detailed map of threats looming in space.

Another problem NASA is turning to the TopCoder community to solve is part of the Disruption Tolerant Networking Challenge Series. The task is to make communication between ISS astronauts and Earth more efficient and seamless. Emails don't go straight from the ISS to an astronaut's family's home computer; the messages have to travel through a series of nodes, with information sent to one node being stored in that location until the next node comes into view, at which point it takes the next leap in its journey. Imagine sending information over an internet in a state of constant interruption, which sure sounds like much of America's busted web infrastructure, but be assured that it can get much, much worse. 

What this means is that, although the ISS orbits about 250 miles above the planet, an email travels some 44,000 miles between the station and the Earth-bound recipient as its routed around the planet. The TopCoder community is working on adapting an existing email system to take advantage of delay-tolerant networking by converting email into bundles instead of packets to simplify data sharing.

Finally, the TopCoder community is taking on astronaut health with the ISS Food Intake Tracker (FIT) challenge. Microgravity does a number on the human body; not having to support their own body weight for weeks or months at a time causes astronauts to lose muscle mass and bone density. Exercise helps, but more important is diet. Each astronaut launches with a target value of nutrients and calories to consume each day, and it's up to every individual to pick foods that meet those needs. 

Where TopCoder comes in is helping NASA develop a user-friendly iPad app to help astronauts track their food to make sure they're meeting their nutritional needs. Prototypes going through preliminary testing at the Johnson Spaceflight Centre are using voice recognition software to call up information like personal profiles and meal plans. The goal is to have the first ISS FIT system launch in the spring of 2015, taking the guesswork out of maintaining a healthy diet in space.

"These data scientists [that make up the TopCoder community] have been able take the complex, data intensive problems facing NASA and other federal agencies, analyze it, and then turn that analysis into creating actual solutions to advance some of their most important initiatives," said Dr. Karim R. Lakhani, Principal Investigator of Harvard-NTL and Lumry Family Associate Professor of Business Administration. It will be interesting to see not only what the TopCoder community can do to solve these big problems, but what other challenges NASA will crowdsource solutions to in the future.