Microsoft, NASA, and students from two HBCUs in the Reston/DC area have completed the maiden mission of a new Microsoft/NASA partnership, STEM Educational Project: AI looking for new Earths.
Using methodology developed by The Microsoft Garage over years of running hackathons, in just one month – and while completing their final exams – the student hackers learned and deployed several new technologies, and quite literally reached the stars by showing they could deploy code to the International Space Station.
According to Piali Ghose, Director of The Garage Reston/DC and host of the event, “This hackathon amplifies the cultural priorities closest to our hearts here at Microsoft and at The Garage because it allows us to continue fulfilling our stated commitments to making a difference, seeking diversity and being inclusive in our work, bringing multiple teams together as ‘One Microsoft’ while collaborating with federal and academic partners, and doing all of this with a growth mindset.”
Planning the mission
The partnership emerged from a shared goal of fostering the future STEM workforce by exposing university students to science, tools, and expertise “at the intersection of Space + Cloud.” By structuring the project as a month-long hackathon, participating students learned how real data scientists work as a team to ideate, develop, and validate their work with a proof of concept.
“Microsoft is in Reston to increase our ability to support government and commercial customers in the region,” Dr. Steve Scallen, Director of University Engagement at The Garage, explained. “The Garage Reston/DC programming creates opportunities for Reston employees to leverage their creativity and encourage collaboration with government customers, local communities, the broader DC tech industry, civic organizations, and education groups and institutions [like HBCUs].”
Microsoft provided “mission control” in the form of volunteer mentors from both the Azure Space and Data and AI teams, and students were also given access to experts at NASA, including Dr. Aprille Ericsson, Dr. Rebekah Hounsell, and Dr. Jon Jenkins. The whole mission was coordinated by The Garage Reston/DC, one of more than a dozen Garage locations at Microsoft campuses around the world, where Ghose worked with Azure Space’s Steve Kitay and Juan Carlos Lopez (formerly a NASA employee himself) to select students and design the mission.
Hackers and mentors from the NASA/Azure Space hackathon meet at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. From left: Sr. Azure Specialist Jamal Wade; crew members Demario Asquitt and Mubarek Abdela; The Garage Director Piali Ghose; crew members Getaante Yilma, Anu Upadhyaya, and Hridweek Karki; Azure Space Sr. Director Stephen Kitay, Sr. Software Engineer Kevin Mack, Sr. Program Manager Juan Carlos Lopez; UMBC’s Asst. Research Scientist Rebekah Hounsell
Kitay, Senior Director of Azure Space, praised the mission in a recent LinkedIn post and said using Microsoft technologies to do work in space is a natural extension of the company’s mission statement. “Microsoft’s mission is to ‘empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more,’ and [the Azure Space team] has expanded that to empowering every person and organization on and off the planet to achieve more. That’s the purpose of Azure Space: being able to connect to the next generation and helping them be part of the excitement and the industry that we get to be part of, which is bringing space and cloud computing and new technologies together in innovative ways and sharing that with people – particularly people that might not otherwise have the opportunity.”
For Lopez, a Senior Program Manager, it was also about paying it forward. As the first generation of his family to go to college, he said opportunities like this made a big difference in his own career trajectory. “I’m with Microsoft Azure Space but previously I worked at NASA for a number of years because of a student program similar to this one. So, to me it was about taking my new world at Microsoft and my old community at NASA and bringing them together to create opportunities for students in the same way that I was given those opportunities.”
Packing for the mission and determining launch window
Since 2018, NASA has been operating the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), charged with looking for earth-sized planets (exoplanets) orbiting bright stars outside the solar system. The Azure Space team realized that with access to some NASA data and SMEs, they had everything they needed to join the hunt for potential exoplanets, and to bring a few talented students along. Lopez joked that if they do find a planet, “Maybe we’ll call it Planet Azure.”
Dr. Ericsson acted as a mentor to the crew on the NASA side. She said the hackathon was a way not only to learn new skills, but also to learn about the space science industry in general. “I love TESS because it’s a terrestrial planet finder – what cool stuff, right? I think the students got excited about this data and how it fits into the NASA themes. They really are learning a lot more than just a programming application – they’re learning about the larger goals of our organizations.”
TESS observes from an elliptical high earth orbit to produce unobstructed, precise, and continuous measurements of the brightness of a star called lightcurves. About NASA’s TESS Mission: The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is looking for earth-sized planets (exoplanets) orbiting bright stars outside the solar system. The mission will survey 200,000 of the brightest stars near the sun to search for these transiting exoplanets. TESS was launched in April 2018 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Mission control was comprised of Data and AI mentor Taylor Corbett, and Azure Space mentors David Weinstein, Steve Kitay, Kevin Mack, Brad Armstrong, and Tatyana Pearson. This team provided day-to-day and task-by-task guidance by way of regular checkpoints on Microsoft Teams, recorded for any crew members (students) who may have had a conflict with their studies. They also made themselves available after hours when necessary to accommodate the hackers’ school schedules.
Weinstein, the Azure Space team’s Principal Software Engineering Manager, said the space industry is on the verge of massive growth that will require a whole new cohort of computer scientists and other professionals to fill its ranks, both on Earth and in space. That wasn’t the case when he was a student. “In my generation, space was always on my mind, but it was not really a viable career for many people. But with this generation, with the space revolution that’s going on right now, there really is a solid opportunity for a much larger boom and many more career opportunities directly related to the space industry. That’s not on a lot of college students’ radar yet.”
Mack, a Senior Software Engineer with Azure Space, said TESS was a perfect choice for the hackathon format. “We wanted something interesting and compelling for the situation and for the space station, while also looking at something that was very achievable for [the students] in the timespan. The whole goal of this was to empower the students to succeed and empower them to literally reach the stars, so we wanted to make sure that it was something relevant to space, but also something that was attainable and doable.”
Armstrong, also a Senior Software Engineer, agreed, adding that all the data they were interested in is open source and accessible to the public from even a basic laptop. “This problem of trying to find exoplanets is something where the science is already fairly well established and the toolset around that is pretty performant, there’s simply a lot of data that has not been processed yet.”
Mission control pauses for a selfie. (Left photo) clockwise from left: Lopez, Kitay, Wade, Pearson, Mack, Azure Space Sr. Data Scientist Taylor Corbett; Ghose; Azure Space Principal Software Engineering Manager David Weinstein. (Right photo) from left: Piali Ghose, Juan Carlos Lopez, Steve Kitay, Dr. Rebekah Hounsell, Dr. Aprille Ericsson
Corbett, a Senior Data Scientist, said the hackathon was exactly the kind of thing he would have been interested in when he was a college student, or even before that. “I’ve been a space nerd my entire life. I still have photos of me at space camp in 6th grade and things like that, so the idea of being able to be part of something where conceivably we could find a new planet, like, who gets to do that?!” he said. “The amazing thing is that [the students] are working with data, models, and methods that weren’t around when I was born. And now here they are working with Microsoft, deploying code onto the cloud and onto the International Space Station.”
Working with Dr. JiaJun Xu at University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and Dr. Michaela Amoo at Howard University, The Garage set out to identify students with a desire to “Participate in a student project combining Microsoft’s Azure Artificial Intelligence and data from NASA to explore the universe.” All that was required to apply was an intermediate knowledge of some basic coding languages (C#, Python, and Linux) and, of course, the spirit of an explorer.
Five students were selected as “crew members” for the hackathon: Anu Upadhyaya and Hridweek Karki from Howard; and Demario Asquitt, Mubarek Abdela, and Getaante Yilma from UDC.
While the students they selected all study at HBCUs in Washington, D.C., they all come originally from outside the U.S.
Upadhyaya, from Nepal, is a sophomore major in computer engineering at Howard who aspires to be a computer engineer. She was responsible for deploying the mock space station and equipping it with simulated constraints to mirror the environment in space. This included adding bandwidth and latency limits.
“Before this hackathon I had no experience with GitHub, and only a little experience with Python, so for me everything was really new – I learned so many things! We learned how to work with docker containers to create environments where our apps could work in any machine, and we learned about lightcurves and how to use the lightcurve data to create things like Target Pixel Files, periodograms, plots, BLS algorithms, and more. It showed me how things are actually done at NASA. I’m still exploring what I really want to do in my future, which is why I was so excited when Dr. Amoo came with this opportunity.”
By the time they got to their final presentation, however, they were all talking like space scientists. “Once we got the data downloaded and processed from Target Pixel Files to lightcurves, we use the BLS algorithm to transform and fold the lightcurves so they make sense to scientists, allowing them to conclude if a planet exists in a specific area,” said Asquitt, a computer science major in his last year at UDC, originally from Jamaica. “If there’s an inverted parabolic shape in the periodogram, the scientists can be pretty sure there’s a planet there. Basically, we wanted to mimic the environment in space, so we created a virtual machine in Azure that functions as our ground station for processing data sent from the mock space station to our ground station. As soon as we had access to both stations, I could start to run code.”
Yilma, from Ethiopia, is a senior in computer science at UDC and an aspiring software engineer. Part of his contribution was to write scripts to download lightcurve files and transform the data into various formats. He also defined the docker file for the container and deployed the container to the mock ground and space stations using scripts provided in the GitHub repo.
“It was great to learn the hard skills like lightcurve, but one of my biggest takeaways from this hackathon was learning how to take a big problem and break it into smaller chunks. It gave me exposure to what is possible with Azure and this kind of computing – it was a great experience,” Yilma said.
Crew members present their solution to mission control at the hackathon closing ceremony. From left: Demario Asquitt, Hridweek Karki, Anu Upadhyaya, Mubarek Abdela, Getaante Yilma
Measuring success and coming in for a landing
According to Mack, the crew completed their mission the moment they proved they could deploy their own code to a space station. “One of the goals of the [Azure] Space team is really to democratize space and make it easier for people to get there. And to me, there’s a big check box there of a student getting code to space – that is an example of how we’re making it easier and pushing the ‘art of the possible.’ Not only do we think it’s possible, but it didn’t take 16 PhDs to do it. It took five students that are about to graduate.”
Karki is originally from Nepal and studies computer engineering at Howard. Before this hackathon, he had been a member of his high school astronomy club but that’s as close as he had gotten to NASA, or to learning from working space scientists.
He summarized the experience and the crew’s learnings like this: “The hackathon really made a big impact on all of us, and definitely raised our interest about future opportunities in space. We now all have a knowledge base and a better understanding of the possibilities for us in astrophysics, TESS/Kepler data, and finding exoplanets or even life beyond Earth. It was really exciting to learn the science behind what we were doing, like why we were folding these lightcurves. The other big thing I learned from this was when to ask questions, and what to look for when you get stuck. This also gave me a greater appreciation of mentorship, so I want to thank [mission control] for being there for us.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing – the crew had difficulty initially in setting up the virtual environments, connecting to the virtual machines, and in one case, finding that their downloaded target pixel files were corrupted.
Abdela, a senior computer science student at the University of DC also originally from Ethiopia, said it best: “We want to thank everyone that supported us through this journey. For providing us this opportunity in the first place, but also for making sure that we were supported every step of the way. And that also meant a lot of hours, even hours outside of working time. Kevin, Brad, and the whole team are just so amazing. They were able to meet us where we were, explaining a lot of complex things in a very simple way which is helpful for people that are just starting out. Being just a text away for any issues that we face – we really, really appreciated that.”
Lopez said he hopes the students will keep in touch, whether they are planning for a career at Microsoft, NASA, or elsewhere. “This is not a goodbye. We already have the Space Act agreement with NASA, so this is just the first of many hackathons that we’re going to run together. I would love for you all to come back next year as mentors for the students that will come after you so that you can continue your relationships and continue being connected.” All of the students were encouraged to connect and continue their discussions on LinkedIn, where Lopez also shared a post to mark the finale.
Ghose closed by inviting the students back to The Garage Reston/DC for its grand opening next month. You can see more of her thoughts about the hackathon on LinkedIn. She also thanked the many groups at Microsoft that coalesced to make the event a success behind the scenes, including Blacks at Microsoft (BAM), members of the Federal Accounts team, and Microsoft’s legal team.
Congratulations to the crew on a successful mission, and huge thanks to mission control and the countless mentors and support staff at both Microsoft and NASA that came together to make it possible for them to send code to the cosmos and reach the stars.
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