On January 27, 2017, astronauts aboard the International Space Station refereed the 2016 High School Finals of the international Zero Robotics competition. After four months of writing and testing code, the top high school teams watched from Earth as real satellites carried out their programs in orbit. That’s right: Kids are writing code for satellites!
The satellites, called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Engage Reorient Experimental Satellite), are soccer-ball-sized robots that float inside the Space Station and maneuver with small puffs of compressed gas. They can be programmed to carry out a variety of experiments such as testing electronic sensors, studying the behavior of fluids in microgravity, and demonstrating technologies for capturing space junk. The SPHERES had their first on-orbit tests in 2006, and over ten years later they’re still going strong, although one of them was recently sent home for repair and then returned to the Station. The original SPHERES have been joined by a newer generation that includes the two robots used in this year’s Zero Robotics tournament. These little robots have the advantage of being rapidly reconfigurable using interchangeable accessories. In fact, the SPHERES just broke a record for “tempo of operation,” switching among five different experiments in two weeks!
NASA treats the annual Zero Robotics competition as a recurring SPHERES experiment operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There are competitions for middle school (summer) and high school (fall), and they all share three important features:
Each year features a new “game” motivated by a real-life engineering problem of interest to NASA and MIT. The 2016 game, SPACE-SPHERES, challenged competitors to collect pieces of virtual satellites, transport the pieces to specific positions, and assemble the pieces together. These tasks are relevant to the process of building a GPS or similar satellite network around Mars. To succeed, the student teams had to program their robots to maneuver with both precision and strategy, protecting their own satellite pieces while trying to steal opposing teams’ pieces.
Teams start their programming online using simulations that mimic the SPHERES’ behavior in microgravity. After several phases of virtual competition, the finalists’ programs are uploaded to the real SPHERES robots on the Space Station. Astronauts oversee and help judge the championships while broadcasting live for the whole world to see! The referees for the 2016 competition were Russian cosmonaut Andrei Ivanovich Borisenko and NASA astronaut Peggy A. Whitson. Students gathered in locations around the world to watch the live transmission from space.
The champion of the 2016 High School Tournament is Space Linguine, an alliance of two Italian teams and one American team. The alliance phase is an important feature of the high school competition. Zero Robotics holds an International Draft Day where the top teams select collaborators – and every team’s first pick must be a team from another country. This requirement helps students practice navigating cultural and linguistic barriers to achieve a common objective.
“Working with other people in order to try to create a functioning strategy and code was the most fun part of Zero Robotics,” said one of the members of Space Linguine. “I really enjoyed programming the robot and collaborating with teams across the world.”
The next Zero Robotics competition will be a five-week summer program for middle school students. Training is available for educators and summer camp staff. Zero Robotics provides free curriculum, tutorials, and ongoing technical support throughout the competition. Participating states and partners are identified in mid-March and program sites are selected my mid-May. To learn more, email Program Manager Katie Magrane at zerorobotics(AT)mit.edu.
Congratulations again to Space Linguine!
Thanks to Katie Magrane, Executive Director of the Innovation Learning Center, for contributing text and images to this article.