Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites-Zero-Robotics (SPHERES-Zero-Robotics) - 02.03.17

Overview | Description | Applications | Operations | Results | Publications | Imagery

ISS Science for Everyone

Science Objectives for Everyone
The Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites-Zero-Robotics (SPHERES-Zero-Robotics) investigation establishes an opportunity for high school students to design research for the International Space Station (ISS). As part of a competition, students write algorithms for the SPHERES satellites to accomplish tasks relevant to future space missions. The algorithms are tested by the SPHERES team and the best designs are selected for the competition to operate the SPHERES satellites on board the ISS.
Science Results for Everyone
Forget American Idol – this is American Algorithm. High school students write algorithms for free-flying robotic satellites to accomplish specific tasks, and the best designs were selected to operate the satellites on the space station. In 2010, 24 teams selected from a pool of 48 applicants participated in the inaugural competition, and in 2011, more than 100 teams began the competition, then formed alliances of three teams each with the top nine alliances competing in the finals. In 2010, crowdsourcing was used to develop the spacecraft software framework used by the students during the challenge, which increased its quality.

The following content was provided by Jeffrey A. Hoffman, Ph.D., Alvar Saenz-Otero, Ph.D., and is maintained in a database by the ISS Program Science Office.
Experiment Details


Principal Investigator(s)
Jeffrey A. Hoffman, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States
Alvar Saenz-Otero, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States

Information Pending

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States
Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation, Cambridge, MA, United States
Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership, Boston, MA, United States
Top Coder Inc, Glastonbury, CT, United States
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

Sponsoring Space Agency
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Sponsoring Organization
National Laboratory Education (NLE)

Research Benefits
Information Pending

ISS Expedition Duration
October 2009 - March 2011; September 2011 - March 2016; March 2016 - February 2017; March 2017 - September 2017; -

Expeditions Assigned

Previous Missions
SPHERES-Zero-Robotics makes use of the SPHERES satellites currently on board the ISS.

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Experiment Description

Research Overview

  • Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites-Zero-Robotics (SPHERES-Zero-Robotics) opens up the International Space Station (ISS) for use by high school students, providing them the opportunity to act as ground controllers for research in space utilizing the SPHERES satellites.
  • High school students program the SPHERES satellites as part of a competition to design algorithms for a predetermined objective.


Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites-Zero-Robotics (SPHERES-Zero-Robotics) provides dozens of high school students access to the microgravity environment for experimentation and analysis. Through the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) program, the next generation of scientists and engineers are inspired to push the limits of space exploration and engineering. SPHERES-Zero-Robotics develops and builds critical engineering skills for students including: problem solving, design thought process, operations training, teamwork and presentation skills. The SPHERES-Zero-Robotics program provides high school students the opportunity to develop algorithms for SPHERES currently on board the International Space Station (ISS). Students design software to accomplish complex tasks in space; such as docking, assembly, and formation flight.

Each season begins with the unveiling of a game motivated by a challenging problem of interest to NASA and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). During the competition, each team must complete a set of pre-determined tasks. During all phases, the students are challenged not only with programming, but also with the development of documentation and presentations to add to their engineering and communication skills. In all cases, the students have to learn and practice successful teamwork skills as there are minimum team size requirements. There are four steps in the competition:
  • Proposal Submission: Students propose a solution to the challenge of the competition. Students clearly outline the motivation, the science behind their algorithm, project implementation, and data they expect to collect to show it worked properly. This phase teaches students the basics of writing a proposal and also serves as a registration step. Teams are not eliminated at this step.
  • 2D and 3D Simulation: Students implement their algorithm in simulation. This step verifies successful algorithm implementation prior to hardware testing, and allows for a baseline performance expectation. If the number of teams participating is greater than can be accommodated in flight, this step is used as an elimination round.
  • Ground Demonstrations: Selected teams from the 2D simulation competition translate their algorithms from simulation to hardware, accounting for computation and communication limitations. Teams that demonstrate correctly operating simulations have their code tested at the MIT flat floor facility in Cambridge, MA. They can then review videos of their tests and compare how their code behaves differently in hardware. All teams can compare the videos and the simulations, but only the teams that competed can see the source code that was run.
  • Flight Testing: The top teams from the 2D and 3D simulations modify their algorithms for implementation in space. Tests are integrated and packaged to be run on ISS. This step includes at least one ISS test session, with live feed of the crew executing the tests. Students have the opportunity to view their test run in real-time. Data and telemetry is downlinked to the students a few days after the event so that they can review their performance.

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Space Applications
The NASA "International Space Station Education Concept Development Report" calls out three levels of interaction for students involved with NASA activities: exposure, engage, and educate. SPHERES-Zero-Robotics provides a unique and valuable opportunity to go far beyond exposure. The students are truly engaged in space research; the need for them to create their own programs takes it to the point where they are being educated. In this way, SPHERES-Zero-Robotics inspires future scientists and engineers to work within the space program. Starting at the high school age group, students view working in space as "normal", with the expectation that they become inspired to push the limits of space exploration, engineering, and development.

Earth Applications
SPHERES-Zero-Robotics provides a unique and valuable opportunity to maintain students interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers; even those who do not wish to pursue space careers see their lives affected by knowing their work can have an impact beyond the classroom. The ability of the students to participate in real engineering activities, beginning in high school, potentially encourages them to remain interested in those fields. SPHERES-Zero-Robotics also builds critical engineering skills for students such as problem solving, design thought process, operations training, teamwork, and presentation skills.

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Operational Requirements and Protocols

The SPHERES-Zero-Robotics Competition has four steps in the process:
  • Step 1: Proposal Preparation and Submission. Introduces the students to the basics of writing a proposal and demonstrating software development. There is no elimination criterion at this step; all teams who submit a complete proposal are accepted.
  • Step 2: Initial simulation competition in 2D. Determines schools have working algorithms. Students are eliminated if they have not scored any points; only teams that have scored points go to the 3D competition.
  • Step 3: 3D simulation competition. Test the algorithms The winners of the 3D simulation competition have their algorithms compete on the ISS.
  • Step 4: ISS Finals. The top teams have their code tested on board the ISS as part of a live finals event!  The SPHERES satellites must be operated under the supervision of a crew member. Each SPHERES-Zero-Robotics session lasts between 3 to 4 hours. The session has as much real-time video and audio available as possible; therefore, the ground teams can get the results immediately after each test and tally scores.
During the flight sessions there are three phases: programming SPHERES, free-flying operations, and data retrieval. Programming the satellites involves uploading the algorithms for each specific session to the SPHERES laptop from the ground crew. The laptop is used to send the algorithms and commands to the satellites, and receive data and status reports from the satellites. The data is then downlinked to the ground crew for analysis. During free-flying operations, the satellites perform various maneuvers with one to three satellites operating simultaneously. Once the test session is complete, the data is downlinked to the ground, via the Operations Local Area Network (Ops LAN), for analysis by the SPHERES team. This analysis allows new and/or modified tests to be uplinked for use in the next test session.

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Decadal Survey Recommendations

Information Pending

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Results/More Information

In the fall of 2009, the pilot competition for SPHERES-Zero-Robotics included two teams from Idaho. Bonners Ferry High School and Coeur d'Alene School district competed in simulation, ground testing and ISS testing. Neither team was eliminated at any point. The first SPHERES-Zero-Robotics competition aboard the ISS took place on December 9, 2009.(Saenz-Otero et al. 2011)

Zero Robotics SPHERES Challenge 2010: HelioSPHERES saw 24 teams selected from a pool of 48 applicants to participate in the inaugural competition. The finals took place on December 16, 2010 with the LCA Team Zero BotX from Lexington Christian Academy, Massachusetts, winning the tournament. Team Delta Falmouth from Falmouth High School, Maine, received special mention for being the only team to demonstrate station docking during the finals. Team Ganymede from Friendswood High School, Texas, also received special mention for leading the competition until the finals and setting the path for exemplary strategies. The final standings were as follows:
  • 1st - LCA Team ZeroBotX, Lexington Christian Academy, MA
  • 2nd - Delta Falmouth, Falmouth High School / Falmouth Maine, ME 
  • 3rd - SuperNOVA, Prince William County School System, VA 
  • 4th - A-Team, Cyprus High School/ Granite School District, UT 
  • 5th - Ganymede, Friendswood High School, TX 
  • 5th - Glenbrook North, Glenbrook North High School, IL 
  • 5th - USC SCALE, Upper St. Clair School District, PA 
  • 5th - Stuy-Naught, Stuyvesant High School, NY 
  • 9th - BACON, Charlottesville High School, VA 
  • 9th - Team Vector, Naples High School, FL
The Zero Robotics High School Tournament 2011 finals took place on January 23, 2012. Over 100 teams began the competition. After the 3D simulation competition they formed alliances of 3 teams each. The top 9 alliances reached the finals aboard the ISS (a total of 27 teams). Congratulations to Alliance Rocket from Riverhill High School, MD, Storming Robots, NJ and Rockledge High School, FL for winning the SPHERES Challenge 2011 Championship on the International Space Station.

The impact of crowdsourcing, the process of outsourcing a task to an outside group of people, was also investigated in conjunction with the SPHERES Zero Robotics Challenge 2011. Crowdsourcing was used to develop the spacecraft software framework used by the students during the challenge (Nag, IEEE Aerospace 2012). Results showed that crowdsourcing under TopCoder’s infrastructure increased the quality of solutions for the software framework, however with excess management overhead (Nag 2012 thesis). The games that the students were required to solve during the tournament were also aimed at supporting controlled spaceflight algorithm development. The top solutions were in keeping with SPHERES-required error bounds, demonstrating another layer of crowdsourcing success (Nag, IJSTMI 2013).

The Zero Robotics SPHERES Challenge High School Tournament 2012 is now accepting registrations.

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Results Publications

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Ground Based Results Publications

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ISS Patents

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Related Publications

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Related Websites

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image Photo of the SPHERES-Zero-Robotics Pilot Program teams at MIT during the ISS Test Session (2009-12-09). The two teams (Delta [left] and Absolute Zero [right]) with the SPHERES team (front). Astronaut Jeff Williams is shown on the screen running one of the tests.
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image NASA Image: ISS016E014220 - Three satellites fly in formation as part of the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) investigation. This image was taken during Expedition 16 in the Destiny laboratory module.
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The ten SPHERES Zero-Robotics student teams watching two views of the ISS competition live from MIT. Image courtesy of John Tylko from the Aurora Flight Science Corporation.

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image The SPHERES Zero-Robotics Second place team from the James P. Timilty Middle School. Image courtesy of John Tylko from the Aurora Flight Science Corporation.
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On Dec. 9, 2009, the Zero Robotics pilot teams observed the demonstration of their code running on the SPHERES robots aboard the space station. Image Credit: MIT.

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image NASA Image: ISS042E046199 - ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti with the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites-Zero-Robotics (SPHERES-Zero-Robotics) experiment.
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image NASA Image: JSC2015E076571 - Zero Robotics Summer Spheres Program particpants.
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