March 04, 2013
Graham Warwick Washington
Solving a problem for NASA carries a cachet that ensures there is a strong response whenever the space agency posts a challenge to any of the online communities it uses to crowd-source new ideas.
A just-completed challenge offering $30,000 in prizes for ways to increase power from the International Space Station (ISS) solar arrays as it orbits saw a record 4,056 competitors register. The challenge sought a control algorithm for the rotary joints that would maximize power generation while minimizing shadowing of the longerons supporting the arrays. When the competition closed on Feb. 6, 459 competitors had submitted 2,185 solution attempts.
“NASA is a huge brand globally, and galactically,” says Rob Hughes, explaining the popularity of web-based competitions like the ISS Longeron Challenge that his company runs for the space agency. Hughes is president and COO of TopCoder, an online community of more than 460,000 algorithm and software designers worldwide that NASA taps to solve problems.
The ISS Longeron Challenge was just the latest in a series of competitions that have seen online problem-solving communities help NASA find solutions for challenges ranging from packing medical kits for long-duration space flights to mining terabytes of planetary imagery for interesting data.
And what motivates participants is not always the prize money, which often is small. There is kudos from peers for an elegant solution, the chance to build a resume that will attract the likes of Google, or simply the pleasure of solving a difficult problem. “We are giving everyone a chance to be a rocket scientist,” says Jennifer Gustetic, NASA program executive for challenges and competitions.
Unlike NASA's Centennial Challenges, which are staged technology-demonstration events, the online problem-solving contests “leverage the power of the web to crowd-source ideas and solutions from people that may not play well together,” she says. “It is not necessary for them to come together in a physical event.”
Use of online challenges started at NASA Johnson Space Center, says Jason Crusan, director of the Advanced Exploration Systems division. “The life sciences group was interested in using challenges to solve problems with which they were rather stuck and running out of ideas, and looking for new solutions,” he says.