Screen shot of Zero Robotics simulation test run. (MIT Space Systems Laboratory)
View large image
NASA astronaut Ron Garan, Expedition 28 flight engineer, performs a check on Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES, floating freely in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA)
View large image
Students watch as the Zero Robotics 2011 summer competition takes place aboard the International Space Station. (MIT Space Systems Laboratory)
View large image As the school year kicks off, teachers commonly ask students to share their summer experiences with the class. One might have vacationed with their family, another may have gone camping, but this year there will be a select few who can say that they programmed code that controlled satellites on the International Space Station!
The second annual Zero Robotics Summer SPHERES Program ran for five weeks this past summer. The Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES, mentioned in the program name are used aboard the station to test guidance, navigation and control in microgravity - when not in use for space competitions.
Astronaut Ron Garan refereed the on-orbit tournament on Aug. 16, 2011. Students watched via live video downlink as the team from Winthrop 21st Century Community Learning Center in Winthrop, Mass. took home first place honors. Other participating Massachusetts schools included Salem CyberSpace in Salem, Robert L. Ford School in Lynn, the East End House in Cambridge and James P. Timilty Middle School in Roxbury.
Zero Robotics Lead 2011 Sreeja Nag explained the appeal for participating students. "It's like playing video games with real satellites on the space station, except that instead of an X-box or a game controller, students are using computer code for autonomous control," said Nag.
The goal of this partnership between NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, and the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership, or MAP, is to ramp up middle school student interest in math, science, technology and engineering. More than 75 students participated this summer, learning problem-solving and design skills. Under the guidance of an MIT undergraduate coach, students worked through a preset curriculum. After covering basic math, science and space concepts, students studied the game and then divided into groups to plan strategies and learn to write code.
MAP Executive Director Kathleen Magrane commented on the success of the collaborative effort. "We want to provide students with complimentary, experiential learning opportunities that connect youth with prominent scientists and encourage them to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics," said Magrane. "Strategic partnerships like these allow us to generate curiosity, build confidence and strengthen the capacity of our young people to achieve greatness, now and in the future."
This year the competition had half the participants as last year, due to reduced funding. The students learned C Programming, an advanced computer language with specific rules on how the code must be written. Each team paid great attention to their code, as a misplaced colon or parenthesis could mean the difference between a win or loss.
Once uploaded, the code that student teams wrote controlled and directed the SPHERES to achieve the game objectives aboard the station. This summer's specific challenge was to provide a lasting energy source by mining asteroids. In addition, mentors organized fun science activities, like liquid nitrogen making and shooting bottle rockets, to give students a break from coding. "Students enjoyed it and said that they learned a lot," said Nag. "This year's Zero Robotics game was very challenging, however, they picked up very well and the station finals had pretty awesome formation flights in microgravity!"
Since many of the students had no previous coding experience, the success of their efforts was proof of their new capabilities. Even if their SPHERE did not triumph, each student in the competition came away a winner, having learned a new skill in the area of computer programming. More importantly, as their classmates may learn this fall, they likely have a new found passion for space that could put them on the path to higher education and careers in engineering, math, science or technology.
NASA has many opportunities for teachers and students to participate in space station science and education. Zero Robotics organizes yearly robotics programming tournaments for students, including the upcoming SPHERES Zero Robotics high school competition, which kicks off nationwide this month. The final event for the high school challenge will take place in December 2011.
Although a Zero Robotics Summer SPHERES Program 2012 challenge has yet to be planned, there are hopes for growth in the program. "Zero Robotics' high school program operates nationwide and is looking to go international," said Nag. "Given the positive feedback from students in the summer programs, we are also very keen on expanding the middle school program nationwide, given funding and support."