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Hackathon team uses origami in James Webb Space Telescope Pi project

The James Webb Space Telescope was the inspiration behind a NASA challenge which uses an IoT device based around folded paper

One of the winning projects in NASA's 10th Space Apps hackathon is a Raspberry Pi-powered origami design inspired by the way the James Webb Space Telescope unfolds.

The international event featured 28 challenges, with 28,286 registrants and 4,534 teams from 162 countries around the world.

The challenge involved creating origami artwork that looks like the James Webb Space Telescope, to showcase Webb as a technological and design marvel using an “arts-meets-science” approach.

In a recent blog post discussing the Space Apps hackathon, NASA's associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, wrote: “Our goal is for the next generation of explorers to not only learn about NASA's data but to share in the process of using that knowledge – to create and apply that data to solutions to real-world concerns.

“The continuous uptick in global participation in this challenge exemplifies our commitment to creating opportunities that are accessible and equitable to all.”

Launched on 25 December 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope is NASA's next generation of space science observatory, and has been designed to fulfil the agency’s vision to “discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity”.

On the GitHub page for the winning project, Jimmy in a Box, the team from Boston describes itself as a “team of high schoolers and middle schoolers who love and are good at origami crafting”. The team said the Jimmy in a Box project was inspired by the way the James Webb Space Telescope uses origami-like folding and unfolding for its launch and deployment.

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Ben Slavin, NASA Space Apps Challenge information technology lead on behalf of NASA Earth Science Division and a senior vice-president of strategy and design at Mindgrub, said: “The project built origami models to create aspects of the telescope using a controller through a Raspberry Pi that directs cameras and tracking.”

The team built three Origami models. The description on the Jimmy in a Box page states that the computerised Origami models can work as internet of things devices. “We wrote Python apps,” the project team said. “Currently, our apps can take pictures with cameras periodically (every 30 seconds, for example) or when a push button is pressed. They keep track of the current device location (latitude, longitude and elevation) with GPS receivers. They also upload captured photos and location information to a cloud database called Kintone.”

Sarah Hemmings, NASA Space Apps lead on behalf of the NASA Earth Science Division and a lead associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, has been involved in running the hackathons since 2017. She said the goal of the hackathon is to foster the growth of the next generation of scientists and engineers by encouraging people from all walks of life to engage with NASA's freely available data.

“We ask the writers of the challenges if they ever have a pet project and to think outside of the box,” she said. “It’s not only space enthusiasts. Grab a piece of paper. That’s all you need.”

While it is hard to measure how participants in the NASA Space Apps Challenge develop their enthusiasm for science and engineering, Toni Eberhart, NASA Space Apps Challenge communications lead on behalf of the NASA Earth Science Division and an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, said the challenges offer “a really special place” for participants to grow their work, connect with like-minded people and work alongside NASA domain experts.

“I have seen high school students tinkering with code get internships with startups and local businesses,” she said.

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