Space, The Final Email Frontier

Do you ever find yourself hitting “send” on an email and wondering if it’ll arrive in the recipient’s inbox?

Sending email has become so ubiquitous, simple and nearly instantaneous that we may take it for granted.

In reality, sending an email is a very complex process.

Does the diagram above give you a headache? Yeah, me too.


Now imagine how much more complex it would be if you’re sending an email from Earth to theInternational Space Station (ISS).

The ISS orbits the Earth at a height of 230 miles (370 km) at a speed of 4.791 miles per second (7.71 km/s).

It’s moving fast, like really fast.

Astronauts, Cosmonauts and Space Cadets (ok, we made the last one up) need email too.
Astronauts, Cosmonauts and Space Cadets (ok, we made the last one up) need email too.


Currently the ISS has email – but there are some challenges. The current system operates over TCP/IP (regular old internet) on links that are time delayed and frequently disrupted due to the structure of the ISS blocking the transmission of data or by the handover of communication between the various ground installations to communication satellites (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System: TDRSS) and eventually on to the ISS.

The combination of delay and disruptions causes Microsoft Outlook to frequently have problems and become unusable, particularly when sending emails with large attachments, such as pictures or videos.

Here’s how NASA needs your help – we need to integrate the ION Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) implementation of Bundle Protocol (BP) with Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange Server to support the transfer of astronaut email to/from the International Space Station (ISS).

Are you up for the challenge? Our first contest opens for registration today. To learn more about this project, please visit

Live long and prosper,
@rsial – Rashid Sial

P.S. Did you know the ISS has an observation deck called the cupola? It bears a strikingly awesome resemblance to the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon.

P.P.S. I know mixing Star Trek & Star Wars is a geek faux pas. Apologies.


NASA pondering two public contests to build small space exploration satellites

NASA today said it was looking into developing two new Centennial Challenge competitions that would let the public design, build and deliver small satellites known as Cubesats capable of operations and experiments near the moon and beyond.

Centennial Challenges typically dare public and private partnerships to come up with a unique solution to a very tough problem, usually with prize money attached for the winner.  Centennial Challenges in the past have typically required several annual competitions to occur before the total prize purses, which can be in the millions-of-dollars range, have been claimed.

In a Request For Information published today, NASA said the two challenges would provide competitive opportunities for competition teams to deploy CubeSats on a NASA provided launch.  The cube-shaped satellites are typically  about four inches long, have a volume of about one quart and weigh about 3 pounds, NASA said.  The RFI looks to gather feedback on the two competitions being considered, the prize amounts and distribution structure as well as to determine the level of interest in potentially competing in these challenges.

The first challenge will focus on finding innovative ways to allow deep space communications with small spacecraft, while the second focuses on primary propulsion for small spacecraft. Currently CubeSat communications technology has been limited to low-bandwidth data communications in near-Earth orbits. CubeSats often use low power / low-gain communications subsystems, unique protocols, or amateur radio wavelengths not suitable for advanced science missions in the remote distances of deep space, NASA said.   As for the propulsion issue, NASA said developers are only starting to introduce limited in-space propulsion systems to CubeSats.  Together, these challenges are expected to contribute to opening deep space exploration to non-government spacecraft for the first time, NASA stated.

Specifically NASA said of the competitions: “Challenge 1 would award prizes in three areas: 1) ground demonstration of communications subsystem performance and acceptance for launch vehicle integration; 2) the highest data volume (bit error corrected) transmitted from and uplinked to a CubeSat within a prescribed period of time from at least 356,700 km (the minimum distance to the moon); and 3) the transmission of a prescribed small data set to the farthest distance beyond the moon and back to Earth. Challenge 2 (to be run concurrently with the Challenge I) would also award prizes in three areas: 1) ground demonstration of propulsion subsystem performance and acceptance for launch vehicle integration; 2) the first CubeSat to achieve a verifiable lunar orbit; and 3) verifiable achievement of at least a prescribed minimum number of lunar orbits.”

As currently envisioned, challenge competitors will develop their CubeSat, and then must successfully complete a series of reviews and ground based hardware tests, to be accepted for launch vehicle integration. Collectively these reviews and ground tests constitute Phase A of the challenges. All teams that meet all Phase A requirements will receive Phase A prizes. Phase B of the challenges will begin after the competitor spacecraft are separated from the launch vehicle. Selection for inclusion in Phase B will be based on team ranking according to the performance of their systems in the Phase A ground tests, NASA stated.

.@NASA, @Harvard & @TopCoder Partner to Develop a Secure Solar System Internet Protocol

SAN FRANCISCO, CA–(Marketwired – Oct 31, 2013) – TopCoder, the world’s largest professional development and design community, with NASA and the Harvard-NASA Tournament Lab (at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science), today announced the launch of a series of innovation challenges that will develop foundational technological concepts for disruption tolerant deep space networking.

NASA has made significant progress in developing Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) protocols that aide in deep space communication. DTN protocols are an approach to network architecture that seeks to address the potential for lack of continuous connectivity in deep space. It is meant to aid NASA in the exploration of the solar system by overcoming communication time delays caused by interplanetary distances, and the disruptions caused by planetary rotation, orbits and limited transmission power.

While DTN protocols are currently able to transmit information, the disruptive and time delayed environment in space makes secure communication difficult. TopCoder is challenging its members to create a mechanism by which cryptographic keys are initialized, distributed and validated while using DTN protocols in order to provide secure communications over vast distances in space.

There are currently three DTN challenges available on the TopCoder website :

1. Security Key Challenge: Strengthen DTN communication by adding the ability to include cryptographic keys.
2. Delay-Tolerant Payload Conditioning (DTPC) Challenge: Validate an implementation of the DTPC protocol developed by Marshall Space Flight Center.
3. Licklider Transmission Protocol (LTP): Add “sender authentication” to the space flight implementation of the protocol.

TopCoder is inviting its members and anyone else in the world to help create the future of space exploration by participating in the DTN Challenge Series. Learn more at

Comments on the news
“Born out of a belief that 10 years in the future (i.e. about 2023) a richer networking environment than point-to-point radio links would be required to communicate, a small team of developers debated the architecture of an interplanetary Internet,” said Vinton Cerf, Distinguished Visiting Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. “Today, that vision is being fulfilled with prototype operations on the surface of Mars and in orbit, on the International Space Station and on board the EPOXI comet-visiting spacecraft.”

“Contest-based innovation has proven to be an important complement to existing internal efforts to solve important technological problems,” said Karim R. Lakhani, Lumry Family Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and Principal Investigator of the Harvard-NASA Tournament Lab. “The Disruption Tolerant Networking challenges represent an opportunity for citizens from around the world to make fundamental contributions to the future of space exploration and have a real impact on the space program.”

“The TopCoder community is helping us build a secure networking protocol to hold and transmit information that provides privacy within a time-delayed space-network,” said Rinat Sergeev, NASA Tournament Lab, Data Scientist and Institute of Quantitative Social Sciences, Harvard. “This is the first time we have tapped the professional crowd to help develop a major keystone in the future era of space exploration and look forward to seeing the community’s 600,000 member strong response.”

About TopCoder, Inc.
TopCoder, the community division of Appirio, is the world’s largest design and development community with more than 600,000 members globally. The TopCoder community creates digital assets including analytics, software and creative designs and solutions with a competitive, standards based methodology. For more information, please visit

.@NASA and Harvard are Using #Crowdsourcing to Create New Communication Protocols for Space Exploration

As you might imagine, NASA has big ambitions for human-kind and our future of deep space travel. One of the major challenges involved in deep space exploration is establishing secure and timely communications. Whether it be the sheer distance between planets, disruptions caused by planetary rotation, or a lack of limited transmission power, the task of communicating in and through these environments is quite challenging. NASA has been creating and testing DTN (Disruption Tolerant Networking) protocols, which they deem necessary for future exploration. From the Disruption Tolerant Networking for Space Operations page on

“For Exploration, DTN is necessary to enable network communications utilizing multiple communication assets and network paths that increases the robustness of the communication network. DTN enables increased timeliness of data return from operating space assets. By improving data timeliness we are reducing risk, reducing cost, increasing crew safety, improving operational awareness, and improving science return, all of which lead to an increased return on investment for the agency.”

And though NASA has made significant progress in creating DTN protocols, they are using crowdsourcing for three distinct challenges that they believe can help shape the future of space exploration. NASA and the Harvard-NASA Tournament Lab (at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science) have teamed up with TopCoder to launch the Disruption Tolerant Networking Challenge Series. In addition to the dedicated DTN challenge site (linked previously), the official press release was issued today containing details of the 3 specific crowdsourcing challenges accompanied by quotes from several key leaders who helped bring the DTN challenge series to life. Several graphics were also created to communicate both the importance and the overall challenge at hand which you can enjoy directly below.

If you are interested in participating in any of the 3 challenges – please visit to register and compete. 

Harvard-NASA Tournament Lab DTN Challenge on TopCoder - Poster


Another version, showcasing a ‘basic’ service operating in a DTN was also created:


Harvard-NASA Tournament Lab - DTN description of challenge poster


We look forward to witnessing the TopCoder Community yet again push the boundaries of crowdsourcing, and by doing so, help NASA and Harvard push the boundaries of exploration for all human-kind. We kindly ask that you share this post and challenge series with your networks, peers, colleagues, family and friends so that the very widest audience gains the opportunity to participate, and by doing so, to help shape our future. Thank you. 

Ohio/Indiana UAS test center to host NASA-backed contest.

The Ohio/Indiana Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center & Test Complex reported yesterday that it will host the NASA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge in April.

The goal of the competition is to help pave the way for UAS in the national airspace by developing appropriate sense and avoid technology. It will take place April 28 to May 2 at the center’s Camp Atterbury site in Indiana and feature $500,000 in prizes.

Following a public review, NASA recently approved the rules for Phase 1 of the competition. According to the test center, NASA is working to provide an air traffic environment where UAS operators can “demonstrate the technologies necessary to operate safely in the same airspace as other aircraft, including civil, commercial and military aviation.”

A Phase 2 competition is expected to follow about a year after Phase 1 and feature up to $1 million in additional prize money. Early bird team registration, which runs through Nov. 15, is $5,000. More information and online registration is available at

Ohio and Indiana have also teamed to pursue designation as one of six federal test sites for research into unmanned aircraft systems. Those sites are scheduled to be announced before the end of the year.

[ image courtesy of the UAS Airspace Operations Challenge ]

The Challenge is On: Team Registration Open for NASA-DPI Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge


WASHINGTON, SEPT. 24, 2013 — /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — NASA and Development Projects Inc. (DPI) of Dayton, Ohio, have opened registration for the 2014 Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Airspace Operations Challenge. The $500,000 prize competition is scheduled for April 2014 in Indiana.


Teams from across the nation will travel to Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center and compete to meet technology milestones, fostering development of technologies that may reduce the technical challenges of safely operating autonomous unmanned aircraft systems in commercial airspace.

“One way NASA can help with tough technology challenges is through prize competitions,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology in Washington. “This challenge can help to stimulate private sector investment that is many times greater than the cash value of the prize and increase the number and diversity of individuals, organizations and teams that are addressing advancement of autonomous unmanned aircraft systems technology.”

NASA is providing the prize money to the winning team as part of the agency’s Centennial Challenges competitions, which seek inventive solutions to problems of interest to the agency and the nation. Prizes are awarded only after solutions are successfully demonstrated.

“NASA Aeronautics has recently rolled out an exciting new strategic vision to strengthen the benefits of our research for society and our nation’s economy,” said Thomas Irvine, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for aeronautics research in Washington. “One of the new elements of our vision will be to leverage technologies from other areas or disciplines, such as autonomy, and to bring solutions to the civil aviation arena. Through the UAS Airspace Operations Challenge, we seek to find out whether autonomy, and possibly other technologies, can aid in removing the barriers that exist to unmanned aircraft systems having full and ready access to the National Airspace System.”

Earlier this year NASA selected DPI as the allied organization to conduct the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge. While NASA provides the prize purse for Centennial Challenges, the competitions are managed by non-profit allied organizations that cover the cost of operations through commercial or private sponsorships.

“DPI is very pleased to partner with NASA to help demonstrate these critical technologies,” said Jeff Hoagland, president of DPI. “The Ohio-Indiana UAS Center and Test Complex will provide the ideal airspace and venue to support the flight competition.”

For more information, including how to register a team for the 2014 Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge, visit:

The Centennial Challenges program is managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is innovating, developing, testing, and flying hardware for use in NASA’s future missions. For more information about NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, visit:

NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate works to solve the challenges that exist in our nation’s air transportation system: air traffic congestion, safety and environmental impacts. The directorate pursues the development of new flight operation concepts and new tools and technologies that can transition smoothly to industry. For more information about NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, visit:



Using #Crowdsourcing In Government from IBM Center for Business in Gov

Daren C. Brabham for IBM Center for The Business of Government: “The growing interest in “engaging the crowd” to identify or develop innovative solutions to public problems has been inspired by similar efforts in the commercial world.  There, crowdsourcing has been successfully used to design innovative consumer products or solve complex scientific problems, ranging from custom-designed T-shirts to mapping genetic DNA strands.

The Obama administration, as well as many state and local governments, have been adapting these crowdsourcing techniques with some success.  This report provides a strategic view of crowdsourcing and identifies four specific types:

  • Type 1:  Knowledge Discovery and Management. Collecting knowledge reported by an on-line community, such as the reporting of earth tremors or potholes to a central source.
  • Type 2:  Distributed Human Intelligence Tasking. Distributing “micro-tasks” that require human intelligence to solve, such as transcribing handwritten historical documents into electronic files.
  • Type 3:  Broadcast Search. Broadcasting a problem-solving challenge widely on the internet and providing an award for solution, such as NASA’s prize for an algorithm to predict solar flares
  • Type 4:  Peer-Vetted Creative Production. Creating peer-vetted solutions, where an on-line community both proposes possible solutions and is empowered to collectively choose among the solutions.

By understanding the different types, which require different approaches, public managers will have a better chance of success.  Dr. Brabham focuses on the strategic design process rather than on the specific technical tools that can be used for crowdsourcing.  He sets forth ten emerging best practices for implementing a crowdsourcing initiative.”