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Hacking, inventing, and teamwork at the Adler Planetarium Space Apps Challenge

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Last saturday, April 12th, was the anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin's flight into space, the first manned spaceflight in the history of the world. As a holiday, it's a symbol of both humanity's capability to explore the infinite, and it's ability to create new technology to overcome the challenges of survival both on our planet and beyond.

The International Space Apps Challenge, which runs from from April 12-13, is one of the many events that commemorates this day. Over the course of 48 hours, teams from locations all over the world try to design solutions to various engineering and technology design 'problems'. Whether designing satellites, writing software, or creating children's books, the 'hacker teams' of the International Space Apps Challenges embody the spirit of progress and 'Do It Yourself'; the ability of humans from all walks of life to invent, innovate, and contribute to scientific progress.

This last weekend, the Adler Planetarium partnered up with the Chicago Science Hack Day organization to host an International Space Apps 'Hackathon', where technology experts, students, and hobbyists teamed up to design solutions to problems related to space technology, asteroid observation, monitoring the earth's environment, robotics, etc.

By Sunday afternoon, each team was racing to complete their project goals, typing into computers and fiddling with Arduino processors at tables surrounded by the detritus of a continental breakfast. Despite their rush, each team member was willing and eager to talk about their projects.

One group, led by Ron Blanche, was making a parasail array that could be strapped to the top of a CubeSat probe. The core parts of this device were an accelerometer to compensate for wind surges, and a motor to tilt the parasol left or right; their challenge goal was to create a steering mechanism that could automatically guide satellites down to a smooth landing on the surface of Mars.

Other teams were working on equally engaging projects, such as a mobile phone app that can analyze the hue of the local sky through snapshots and determine the level of air pollution, a glove mounted ultrasonic sensor that astronauts could use to scan objects on other worlds, etc.

By 1:00pm, supervisors called a halt to the proceedings, and the teams took turns presenting their projects to an audience of their competitors: with powerpoints and live demonstrations, they explained what their projects were, what steps they took to accomplish their goals, and how the work they did could be used to make the world a better place.

At the end of the event, the judges awarded prizes to the teams they felt designed the best 'hacks'. “It's not about winning or losing,” one of the judges joked, “by which I mean it's all about winning or losing.”

Wining or losing aside, the Adler Planetarium's International Space Apps Challenge was a testament to the things passionate individuals can create when working together, even in the shortest periods of time.

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