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Zero Robotics Challenges Student Programmers
Overhead view of the HelioSPHERES competition arena. Overhead view of the HelioSPHERES competition arena. (Zero Robotics)

Three satellites fly in formation as part of the SPHERES investigation. Three satellites fly in formation as part of the SPHERES investigation. (NASA)

This image shows the Zero Robotics online simulation environment used by student teams to prepare their code for the space station. This image shows the Zero Robotics online simulation environment used by student teams to prepare their code for the space station. (MIT)
Attention Zero Robotics 2010 contestants, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to complete the autonomous assembly of a structure in space! Ten lucky high school finalist teams will participate in the Zero Robotics 2010 SPHERES Challenge: HelioSPHERES. Crew members are scheduled to run the student-written code to control SPHERES aboard the International Space Station on December 16. Meanwhile, schools around the nation can tune in online to watch.

Each round of the competition involves two SPHERES -- small, bowling ball-sized autonomous model satellites. These SPHERES float freely in the space station cabin, maneuvered via compressed carbon dioxide gas. These SPHERES were designed to test maneuvers for spacecraft, such as independent rendezvous and docking. Each satellite is self-contained, including propulsion, power, navigation, and computing capabilities.

The Zero Robotics mission challenge uses the SPHERES facility to develop educational opportunities for students. In HelioSPHERES, teams will search for a virtual missing solar panel, use the SPHERES satellite to dock with the panel, and then return it to the base for reassembly. Since there are two student teams in play each round, they must also watch out for each other to avoid their opponent’s “navigational disruptor,” which changes the satellite's trajectory. The previous competition in fall 2009 involved blocking the opponent satellite from reaching a goal location.

This education program enriches student engineering knowledge to build problem solving, programming, teamwork, and operations skills. Twenty-four finalist teams from 48 candidates participated in an online simulation competition and three days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT Flat Floor to test their code. The Flat Floor is an arena where model satellites operate in 2-D, floating on a close to frictionless floor space via special air carriages. Schools around the nation tuned in via Webcast to watch the Flat Floor races. Alvar Saenz-Otero, MIT SPHERES Lead Scientist, commented on the success of the 2010 challenge, "[We] are proud of this achievement, in just one year growing the competition from a local two-school event to a nationwide 24 school event!"

The final competitors include the following teams:

Ganymede -- Friendswood High School, Texas
A Team -- Cyprus High School/Granite School District, Utah
LCA Team ZeroBotX -- Lexington Christian Academy, Mass.
Glenbrook North HS -- Glenbrook North, Ill.
SuperNOVA -- Prince William County School District, Va.
USC SCALE -- Upper St. Clair School District, Pa.
Stuy-Naught -- Stuyvesant High School, N.Y.
BACON -- Charlottesville High School, Va.
Delta Falmouth -- Falmouth High School/Falmouth Maine, Maine
Team Vector -- Naples High School, Fla.

This year there is a new course for competitors to navigate. Dr. Saenz-Otero points out that changes in the motion from the satellites will help student to follow their SPHERES as the course progresses, "We keep working to make it clearer how the satellite is performing on the course on [the space station] when the course itself is invisible; it is all virtual."

Participants who missed out on entering this month’s 2010 challenge can look forward to another high school competition in the fall of 2011. A summer competition is also planned, pending funding. The 2010 HelioSPHERES challenge will be Webcast live from space, so tune in to see who will win!
by Jessica Nimon
NASA's Johnson Space Center
International Space Station Program Science Office