Students Across the US Write Code to Control Zero Gravity Satellites on ISS

Jan 26, 2012 (03:01 PM EST)

Out of this World Robotics Competition Brings Together Young Aerospace Engineers on Earth

GLASTONBURY, Conn., Jan. 26, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- Twenty seven teams of high school students from across the United States competed in the Zero Robotics SPHERES Challenge which took place at MIT in Cambridge, MA and aboard the International Space Station (ISS) this week. "Team Rocket" from River Hill High School, Maryland, "Storming Robots" from Storming Robots LLC, of New Jersey and "SPHEREZ of Influence" from Rockledge High School, Florida posted the best cumulative score out of 9 multi team 'alliances' seeing their code tested in space by real astronauts.

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Known collectively as "Alliance Rocket," the students from Clarksville, Branchburg and Rockledge collaborated by programming software code which enabled miniature basketball-sized satellites called SPHERES, (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) aboard the ISS to find tools, reach imaginary asteroids, collect a 'sample' of Helium-3 and deposit it in a virtual processing station. The final heats of the tournament took place aboard the orbiting International Space Station as the competing teams watched live on screens at the MIT campus on Earth. For news and information on upcoming Zero Robotics events and the new high school season beginning in September 2012, visit

"The students of Team Rocket learned to work as a team in an exciting real life experience solving a challenging problem involving strategy and analysis while combining their knowledge of computer programming, physics and calculus," said Anne Contney, Computer Science teacher at River Hill High School.  "They were introduced to careers in engineering, computer programming and space science. Their mentors taught, challenged and inspired them to become champions and achieve beyond their wildest dreams."

The idea for Zero Robotics originated with astronaut Greg Chamitoff, an MIT graduate and a flight engineer and science officer during Expeditions 17 and 18 on the space station. SHPERES has been operating on the ISS since 2006.

The goal of the program is to build critical engineering skills for students, such as problem solving, design thought process, operations training and team work. Students are not required to have previous programming experience before the project. After a tutorial on how to program the robots, the teams strategize, design and test their coded solutions in a computer simulation environment.

"This year's tournament involved two contradicting activities: competition and collaboration," said Alvar Saenz-Otero, lead scientist of the SPHERES project. "It was very exciting to see how teams developed strategies that helped them collaborate to gain the most points while maintaining a competitive advantage."

The TopCoder software community built the NASA and DARPA-funded competition platform as part of the challenge to conduct experiments with satellites aboard the International Space Station. The community has been working with MIT Space Systems Lab and Aurora Flight Sciences under the sponsorship of NASA and DARPA to create the competition. SPHERES was originally developed to demonstrate the basics of formation flight, autonomous docking and other multi-spacecraft control algorithms, using beacons as reference for the satellites, to fly formation with or dock to the beacon. A number of programs define various incremental tests including attitude control (performing a series of rotations), attitude-only tracking, attitude and range tracking, docking with handheld and mounted beacons, etc. Formation flight and autonomous docking are important enabling technologies for distributed architectures. Each satellite has 12 thrusters and a tank with CO2 for propellant.

TopCoder's expertise in the world of online programming competitions that deliver quality software has been used to create a custom platform and interface designed to make students' ideas for experiments become reality and to inspire future scientists and engineers so that they will view working in space as "normal," and will grow up pushing the limits of engineering and space exploration.

Zero Robotics opens the state of the art research facilities on the ISS to high-school students who write programs that may actually control a satellite in space. The competitions require students to develop an understanding of how to make these satellites work together. Such swarms of satellites could be used to create giant telescope mirrors in space with precision and assemble future space stations without the need for human spacewalks.

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Jim McKeown
TopCoder, Inc.