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Students Compete to Control Floating Space Station Robots

It’s not on commercial television, nor are the teams of high school students ranked weekly by the sports media.

Yet the competition is intense as student teams sponsored by NASA and the European Space Agency and their respective partners compete for the opportunity to have their software algorithms control a trio of brightly colored satellite robots as they float about inside the International Space Station.

In space, the SPHERES spacecraft maneuver with compressed gas thrusters. Photo Credit/NASA photo

 

The annual SPHERES Zero Robotics competition is facilitated by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology led team of engineers to offer students real “hands on” space experience.

While not broadcast commercially, the latest “finals” competition of Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 aboard the International Space Station’s Japanese Kibo science module is archived in a web cast.

Astronauts Kevin Ford, left background, and Tom Marshburn anchor their feet to the floor of the Kibo module as they participate in the SPHERES Zero Robotics competition. Photo Credit/NASA

NASA astronauts Kevin Ford, the station’s current commander, and Tom Marshburn, a medical doctor, were part of the action. A collection of experts at MIT and at ESA in Norway explain the purpose of the competition as well as provide the play by play in the long running web cast.

The competition is based on the premise that future spacecraft will rely increasingly on sophisticated software to carry out autonomous docking activities or deal with the growing hazard of orbital space debris. Software changes, like the algorithms developed by the students, will permit future spacecraft to improve their performance or change their missions altogether.

As a consequence, students are challenged to develop fuel saving and collision avoidance maneuvers.

The three Synchronized Position Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellites serve as the contest spacecraft in the final phase of the four levels of competition.

Just as in real life engineering, students prepare competing proposals, carry out 2 and 3-D demonstrations, then test their strategies in ground-based simulations. The final stage is the ISS-based competition.

Win or lose, student contestants gain valuable skills in problem solving; thought process; operational training, team work; and presentation skills.

This year, Zero Robotics plans to extend the competition to Middle School students.

 

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