“I wrote code for the International Space Station.”
Imagine being able to add that to your résumé, even before you graduate middle school.
During the Zero Robotics middle school finals on Aug. 14, more than 650 students in 11 states watched software they developed compete in the world’s first robotics competition aboard space station.
Zero Robotics gives middle school students an opportunity to learn the basics of computer programming, robotics and space engineering during a five-week summer program. Students then tested their skills in a competition against their peers by manipulating the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) aboard station. SPHERES consist of three free-flying vehicles about the size and mass of a bowling ball. Each satellite uses 12 carbon dioxide thrusters to translate and rotate in any direction.
Katharine Leysath, Texas Zero Robotics program manager, noted that this program often gives students the push they need to try something new. “These students really need experience and to be able to realize ‘Hey, I can do this,’” Leysath said.
Students used a graphical interface to code autonomous programs designed to accomplish tasks relevant to future space missions. This summer’s teams simulated collecting and uploading as many pictures as possible of points of interest on an asteroid while avoiding effects of solar flares. Participants also learned to work around real-world resource constraints such as battery life, carbon dioxide levels, loss of signal with the space station and limited time to run simulations due to the orbiting research lab’s busy schedule.
“You would never think this little thing you decide to do in the summer can get all the way up into the International Space Station,” said Steven Cheng, a member of the top Texas team from Spillane Middle School who helped lead the other Texas teams in strategies against competing states.
Tristan Wiesepape, Cheng’s teammate, echoed his sentiment. “It doesn’t seem real. We were always kind of interested in science and programming, so this just seemed awesome.”
Not only did the teams get a chance to see their code perform, real time, in space—they also got to interact with astronauts currently residing aboard the station through a live video feed. Expedition 44 crew members Scott Kelly of NASA, Oleg Kononenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency and Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency provided feedback and assisted with setup during the competition.
Leysath believes the unprecedented access to space created by partnering with NASA and universities across the country is inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. They realize they are “capable of doing something bigger and better than what they ever dreamed,” she said.
Massachusetts placed first in this year’s competition, with several other states not too far behind them in total points. Ben Morrell, the Texas lead student mentor, reminded the teams that after five weeks of hard work, it’s not really about who wins and who loses on competition day.
“You’re all winners because you had an opportunity to work on this, and you worked hard,” Morrell said.
SPHERES was produced by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Space Systems Laboratory as a way to provide NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other research institutions with a test platform for metrology, controls and autonomous technologies in formation flight. It began in 2000, when Professor David W. Miller challenged his students to design a space vehicle similar to the light-saber-training droid as seen in “Star Wars: A New Hope.” What his students came up with were three satellites, identifiable by their red, blue and orange shell colors, that would test formation flight and docking-control algorithms.
Those three satellites reached the space station aboard Progress 21 on April 24, 2006. Since the first operating session occurred on May 18, 2006, expansions have allowed for increased guest science opportunities like the Zero Robotics competition. The SPHERES program currently operates out of the space station’s Japanese Experimental Module.