Software Development
Hackathons / Science

International Space Station finder wins NASA Space Apps Philadelphia [VIDEO]

A team that built both a hardware and a software hack that lets people find the International Space Station won first place at last weekend's NASA Space Apps Challenge, beating out nine other projects.

A team that built both a hardware and a software hack that lets people find the International Space Station won first place at last weekend’s NASA Space Apps Challenge, beating out nine other projects.

It was a weekend that confirmed that Philadelphia does hackathons better than any other city in the world, said Space Apps judge and Chief Data Officer Mark Headd. Nick Skytland, program manager of NASA’s Open Innovation Program, also seemed impressed with the excitement and action in Philly’s civic hacking community.

“This place is ridiculous,” he said. “I need to move here.”

The 13-person ISS Base Station team, the biggest at the hackathon, built the following:

  1. a web app to track the International Space Station in real time
  2. a companion mobile app that allows users to track the station in the sky and
  3. a device that points to the station, using data it receives from the app the team built.

The project was so expansive that the team had a project manager. The team also included 14-year-old Himavath Jois, a Wissahickon High School student who was the youngest participant at the hackathon.

The ISS Base Station team will compete in the international challenge, along with second place winners EarthKAM Explorer. The EarthKAM Explorer team built a 3D, browser-based tool to look at satellite images of Earth. Check it out here.

Find a full list of the 10 projects that demoed at Drexel University’s ExCITe Center here.


More than 50 hackers participated in the local hackathon, said Andrew Thompson and Amelia Longo, staffers from Callowhill GIS firm Azavea, which organized the event. Nationally, the hackathon saw more than 9,000 participants. The weekend was guided by 50 challenges set forth by NASA that centered around using NASA data and making it more accessible.

Will NASA actually use some of the projects built this weekend? That’s the idea, said co-organizer Mike Brennan.

Last year, the first Space Apps Challenge “set the stage” for what NASA could expect out of the hackathon, Brennan said. This year, challenges were geared toward “actionable results,” he said.

And with good reason: with continued budget cuts for space exploration, NASA has to innovate more than ever. As Skytland put it, hackers at Space Apps built tools and visualizations that would normally take NASA half a million dollars and years to produce.


Another notable project was from Leslie Birch, who built a skirt that uses an Arduino microcontroller and LEDs to track the orbit of the International Space Station.

“Does that skirt come in my size?” quipped judge and Chief Astronomer of the Franklin Institute Derrick Pitts.

Birch, a videographer, said she learned about Arduino at The Hacktory and got excited about hackathons at Lady Hacks, the women-focused event earlier this year. That was Birch’s first hackathon.

Watch a video of Birch talking about her project below, as filmed by students from Science Leadership Academy, who also participated in the hackathon.

Find more videos by Science Leadership Academy students here.

Drexel professor and ExCITe Center director Youngmoo Kim hacked together a way for people to listen to the stars. Watch his demo below.

Companies: Azavea / Drexel University / NASA / Science Leadership Academy

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