It’s not as popular as Angry Birds, but NASA’s mobile app game Sector 33 is pretty cool nonetheless.
It puts players in the air traffic controller’s seat in the airport tower and challenges them to bring the planes in efficiently and safely.
The game is just one of the ways NASA — a well-known leader in government technology — is using mobile apps to bring the agency’s functions into pants pockets, briefcases and backpacks around the country. The agency’s mobile applications dovetail nicely with NASA’s 50-year-old charter mandate to distribute its information to the “widest extent possible,” according to Brian Dunbar, NASA’s Internet services manager.
NASA’s educational project, Smart Skies, was the genesis for development of Sector 33, according to Greg Condon, one of the developers of the game app. It began as a classroom tool to get students interested in careers in air traffic control and to strengthen math skills, he said.
The game is a distance-rate-time problem challenging students to get the planes in the correct spacing efficiently. Video-game skills alone won’t work – they have to do the math too. Students liked it so much they wanted to play it on their mobile devices, leading to development of the mobile app, Condon said.
The game is currently available on iPhone and iPad and an Android version is coming soon. It’s a real time game that emulates what you can see of the planes lined up for landing at Reagan National Airport on a busy summer evening – one after the other, seconds apart, in a mechanical ballet orchestrated by the controllers. And, unlike the school version, which allows a player to “pause” the game and think about it a little big, the mobile app works in real time and if the player doesn’t calculate fast enough, well, “disaster” strikes the aircraft.
Some 65,000 users downloaded it in the first few months, officials said.
Meanwhile, the main NASA app allows users to track NASA missions, view videos of launches and get many kinds of information on space and science.
For example, according to Dunbar, say you are taking a vacation to upstate New York. You plug your location into the app and it gives you an outline of what spacecraft will be flying over your site during the time you are there. App users can also look at videos on demand and turn on NASA television.
And you can follow the news. With the privately funded SPACE X flight ongoing, NASA app users can get updates on the progress of the flight, get video clips and imagery, according to Dunbar. “We really want to reach people and get information out to people,” he said.
Jerry Colen, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, who developed the mobile app, said the idea was for users to view the latest NASA news and images and “not have to be tied down to a computer to access that information.
He said the feedback from users has been excellent, particularly workers taking a break to watch a NASA launch as well as teachers and students.
The Android app was released in July, 2011, just in time for the last launch, he said, and said the next big launch in June will be a mission to go out into the universe and study high energy X-rays. That launch will be available on the mobile app as well.