Sat. Apr 20th, 2019

Five Spaniards win a global NASA contest | Technology

Five Spaniards win a global NASA contest | Technology

In photo: The Pillars of Creation team. From left to right, Rosa Narváez, Juan Martínez, José Luis Martín-Oar (sitting in the middle), Iñaki Ucar and Almudena Castro. In video: demonstration of the 'Galaxy Quest' project.

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One day last September, Rosa Narváez, Melilla designer installed in Madrid, read the call for the 2018 edition of Space App Challenge, a global contest of NASA. In it, the US space agency challenges astronomy enthusiasts to form small work groups and develop a proposal in 48 hours to solve a problem of great significance related to space. Narváez decided to take the step, and invited to join his friends Almudena M. Castro, also a designer (but physics and music training), and Iñaki Ucar, engineer of big data.

The three still did not know what, among the 1,395 ideas presented, which would be developed together with the architect José Luis Martín-Oar and the aerospace engineer Juan Martínez would be recognized by NASA among the best six in the world. The project they proposed is the design of a mobile game with which users, while playing, contribute to train an algorithm for the exploitation of information from the Hubble orbital telescope.

The day of the start of the contest, which was held between October 19 and 21 in Madrid and in another 200 locations on five continents, Narvaez was a little nervous. It was the first time he met with Castro and Ucar in a work context and not as colleagues in their free time. Martín-Oar is the husband of a boss of the company where he works. And Martinez, who had introduced himself to some coworkers, had just met him. "I felt under pressure in that situation! I had to behave well, "he recalls now laughing during a conversation between the five with EL PAÍS.

Narváez explains that she was motivated by the desire to reconnect with that passion for space that she had "as a child" and from which, "for things of life", she had disregarded. Ucar wanted to participate because it seemed like a "good opportunity" to put into practice his knowledge as a researcher specialized in artificial intelligence. What moved Martin-Oar was "the love of aeronautics". Martinez is defined as one who gets "in all the scrubs". And Castro thought that he would like to contribute in some way to solve one of the great challenges of NASA, of which he feels "very fan". Soon, among the five (the average age of the team is 30 years) good chemistry was generated.


That Friday afternoon, the group, which chose the name of Pillars of CreationThe first task was to decide which of the 20 challenges they wanted to face. After discussing it briefly, in the end they chose one whose slogan was simply to develop a game, of any type, that incorporated the Hubble images as an element. "It is the one that had given rise to the ideas that we considered most valuable," says Ucar.

At nine o'clock in the morning of the following day, gathered in Madrid's headquarters of the contest (a space belonging to the company We Work), the five were concretely put to work. According to the deadlines established by the organization, each team had 12 hours to translate their own proposal into conceptual terms. And before Sunday at noon, all groups should have prepared a brief presentation of the project. "The objective was to design an idea that is sustained and know how to sell it very well," explains Martínez.

Pillar of Creation proposes to NASA to create a video game for mobile intended for any user who is over 15 years old. The objective of the player is to overcome missions of between five and ten minutes (and thus unlock new levels) that foresee facing challenges such as identifying new galaxies in the Hubble images, detecting and marking their contours, or tracing the axes of a nebula.

Ucar explains that these are tasks "very simple for a human being, but complicated for a machine". That way, each user would contribute to provide useful information to an artificial intelligence system so that it can learn to manage a large amount of information automatically, he adds.

A citizen science project

The engineer emphasizes that the main purpose was to combine in a single product entertainment, disclosure (information about Hubble) and science (the exploitation of data). "Normally applications of this type require a very strong awareness of citizens," he maintains. "We wanted to break that barrier through something that motivates people if only because it's fun." Castro explains that the mobile gaming format allows the project to have "a very broad reach". "This is how a new channel of communication between NASA and its user base can be opened," adds Martín-Oar.

The idea was successful. In December, the organization selected Pillars of Creation among the 25 finalist teams worldwide. And last February 15, the group knew that they had been awarded one of the six awards, for being first in the category Best use of science. The surprise was great for everyone. "I asked Rosa at least ten times what if it was true," recalls Castro. "When I read the messages, I could only repeat: 'It can not be!', Says Martinez.

According to the indications they have, NASA's recognition will be an invitation to the Kennedy Space Center, located in Florida (USA), possibly on the occasion of a launch. They believe that the space agency will not cover travel and accommodation expenses, so they still have to assess whether they can accept it. They still do not know if NASA will offer them the possibility of further developing the idea they have proposed.

Since they knew they had won, the day of the meeting with this newspaper (Friday, February 22) has been "the first occasion" in which they have been able to join everyone, says Narváez. And while they begin to debate on how they could turn their project into reality, they also reflect on what has contributed most to this experience.

Each one indicates an aspect, but all agree on "the importance of teamwork" and that they had "very good" at all times. There was also a bit of magic missing. "Creativity is playing with the pieces of the puzzle that you know. Here there are musicians, a lover of board games, an architect who works in the business world ... Everyone has their own puzzle. We put all the pieces together and it fit ", concludes Narváez.


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