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Middle school students code robots on space station


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September 21, 2016

“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. 12, students in 13 states watched software they developed compete in a 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 test 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, challenges students to learn new skills.

 

“Zero Robotics is a hard program, and the students did an amazing job learning how to code this summer,’” Leysath said. 

 

Students used a graphical interface to code autonomous programs designed to accomplish real engineering tasks. This summer’s theme was “Spy SPHERES.” Teams simulated retrieving broken satellite debris while at the same time taking and uploading pictures of an “enemy” SPHERE. 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 laboratory’s busy schedule. 

 

Mauricio Coen, Texas Zero Robotics lead student mentor and aerospace engineering doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University, has been with working with the program since its inception.

 

“The level of competence, understanding and curiosity for learning the students have is impressive,” Coen said. “It really makes us joyful of the things we do in aerospace engineering.”

 

In addition to students in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, Washington and West Virginia, a group of educators from Russia all participated this year in preparation to get Russian students involved in next year’s competition.

 

“Every year it gets better and more interesting for the students, the teachers and the program organizers,” Coen said.

 

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 48 crew members Jeff Williams of NASA and Oleg Skripochka of the Russian Federal Space Agency provided feedback and assisted with setup during the competition.

 

“It is an amazing opportunity to see the code from the state of Texas flying on the International Space Station, and no one in the room that is older than 15 years old has the bragging rights about that,” Coen said.

  

Florida placed first in this year’s competition, with several other states not too far behind them in total points.

 

Zero Robotics seeks to inspire the next generation of great minds by allowing them unprecedented access to space at the middle-school level. By making the benefits and resources of the International Space Station tangible to students, Zero Robotics cultivates an appreciation of science, technology, engineering and math through healthy, immersive, collaborative competition.

 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Space Systems Laboratory produced SPHERES 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 on May 18, 2006, expansions have allowed for increased guest science opportunities, like the Zero Robotics competition. SPHERES currently operates out of the space station’s Japanese Experimental Module.

 

For more information about the International Space Station, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/station

 

For more information about SPHERES, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/spheres/home/

 

For more information about Zero Robotics, visit: http://zerorobotics.mit.edu/


Hayley Fick
NASA Johnson Space Center

Middle school students across the country worked with astronauts to execute code they wrote for spherical robots aboard space station during the 2016 Zero Robotics Finals on Aug. 12. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair
Middle school students across the country worked with astronauts to execute code they wrote for spherical robots aboard space station during the 2016 Zero Robotics Finals on Aug. 12. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair
This year 13 states competed in the middle school Zero Robotics finals. Texas students gathered at JSC for their portion of the competition. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair
This year 13 states competed in the middle school Zero Robotics finals. Texas students gathered at JSC for their portion of the competition. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair
Students got to test out drones, robotics and virtual reality technology while awaiting their turn to compete in the Zero Robotics middle school finals. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair
Students got to test out drones, robotics and virtual reality technology while awaiting their turn to compete in the Zero Robotics middle school finals. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair
Astronaut Mike Fincke spoke with middle school students to kick off a morning of coding autonomous programs for spherical robots aboard the space station. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair
Astronaut Mike Fincke spoke with middle school students to kick off a morning of coding autonomous programs for spherical robots aboard the space station. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair