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The VQ-Prize aims to boost the development of new visualization tools for space situational awareness. (Air Force Space Command via YouTube)

The U.S. Air Force is looking for a few good apps to visualize satellites and other objects in Earth orbit — and it’s willing to pay $100,000 in prizes for them.

That’s the bottom line for the Air Force Visionary Q-Prize Competition, or VQ-Prize, which runs through Jan. 15. The tech challenge is aimed at encouraging non-traditional industry partners to develop visualization tools to enhance space situational awareness for the Pentagon’s space operators.

“The need for timely and accurate object tracking is paramount to the defense of space, and this competition will help augment existing capabilities with visualization tools that enable operators to intuitively absorb and quickly navigate massive amounts of space object data,” Brig. Gen. William Liquori, the Air Force Space Command’s director of strategic requirements, architectures and analysis, said in a news release.

The software tools can include flat-screen user interfaces as well as virtual-reality and augmented-reality solutions. Contestants can include universities, individuals and small businesses. No background in space applications is required.

Space situational awareness is a high priority for the Pentagon as well as the White House, which outlined new procedures for monitoring space objects in a policy directive signed by President Donald Trump in June. The number of objects to track is expected to rise dramatically as commercial space ventures pick up the pace for satellite launches.

The Air Force and the Wright Brothers Institute have designed an innovation challenge that’s meant to guide contestants through the software development process, hosted on the InnoCentive problem-solving platform. The solutions should provide new ways of visualizing and understanding events including satellite maneuvers, high-speed conjunctions in low Earth orbit, activity in geosynchronous Earth orbit, new object discovery, multiple-satellite launches and satellite breakups.

All submissions will be evaluated by military space operators, space development professionals and experts on human factors. Winning entries will have to present all the critical information about orbital situations clearly and simultaneously, without cluttering up displays or overstimulating software users.

“Contestants should know that producing simple graphics of satellites in orbit around a 2-D or 3-D map is already available through a variety of existing tools, and replication of these capabilities is not desired,” the contest’s organizers say.

Up to $100,000 in prize money will be distributed in the course of the competition, with multiple prizes awarded for each category and a single VQ-Prize awarded to the best overall submission. For details, check out InnoCentive’s VQ-Prize webpage.

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