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Space Droids Calling
July 3, 2013

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Secondary-school students can play the ultimate robot game: the annual Zero Robotics tournament turns the International Space Station into a playing field for European students to control minisatellites with self-developed software.

Controlling volleyball-sized satellites in space is not easy. SPHERES − short for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites – move around the space station using 12 jets powered by compressed gas.

These autonomous robot satellites have their own power, propulsion and navigation. To master the SPHERES, students must write code to fulfill a mission. The details of this year’s mission will be revealed in September.

This is the third time European contenders have the chance to run their commands in space. The goal of this tournament is to build engineering skills for students, such as problem solving, software operations and teamwork.

From virtual to orbital

Just as in any international competition, the road to the finals is long and challenging. The contest starts with simulation competitions of increasing difficulty held online.

Competitors can create and visualize their code to get ready for the game from a Web browser and free of charge.

Finalists from the online simulation will see their commands run by the SPHERES satellites on the space station transmitted live from space. Each finalist will be composed of a three-team alliance from different European countries.

The final event will take place in January 2014 with the U.S. teams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the European teams at ESA´s ESTEC Space Research and Technology Center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

Join the game

The 2013 ESA High School Tournament registration is open to secondary-school students from ESA member states until September. Teams must consist of between three and ten students.

Find a mentor, register and start preparing your tactics!

Key dates

June–September     Registration, tutorials/free practice

September 7             Kickoff webcast live from MIT

September 9             Registration deadline

October 6                   2D simulation competition deadline

October 27                 3D simulation competition

December 1              Alliance submission deadline

December 15            Final submission deadline

Mid-January 2014    Final Event live from the International Space Station

This original story was written and published by the European Space Agency on June 10, 2013. 

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Models of the SPHERES robots sent to the International Space Station at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The robots are programmed by students on Earth to perform operations based on real-life situations. Compressed air is used to move the spheres in all directions. ESA participation in the pilot programme of Zero Robotics involved collaborating with various universities and academic institutes. ESA provided the opportunity to send teachers from universities to the Massachusetts Institute of Techn
Models of the SPHERES robots sent to the International Space Station at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The robots are programmed by students on Earth to perform operations based on real-life situations.
Image Credit: 
MIT
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SPHERES robots on the International Space Station. The volleyball-sized satellites have their own power, propulsion and navigation systems and are used in an international competition for high school students. Each year a tournament is held where students earn points by writing control algorithms to operate the spheres and by choosing the best tactics to win the game.
SPHERES robots on the International Space Station. The volleyball-sized satellites have their own power, propulsion and navigation systems and are used in an international competition for high school students.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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SPHERES European finalists at ESA’s ESTEC Space Research and Technology Center in the Netherlands. Each year a tournament is held where students earn points by writing control algorithms to operate the droids on the International Space Station and by choosing the best tactics to win the game. The European finalists of 2013 consisted of six alliances from Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal.
SPHERES European finalists at ESA’s ESTEC Space Research and Technology Center in the Netherlands.
Image Credit: 
ESA/A. Le Floc’h
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Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
Page Editor: Kristine Rainey