Monday, January 23, 2012

High Schoolers Compete to Control NASA Satellites

Ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up, and there's a good chance they'll say astronaut. Now kids don't have to wait quite as long to work with NASA. High School students from around the country were given the chance to furnish code that controls bowling-ball sized satellites aboard the International Space Station. Earlier today, NASA beamed down footage of the students' code at work, and a winner for the best-designed code was announced.

The Proba-2 micro satellite. Image Credit: ESA/P. Carril.

The Zero Robotics SPHERES Challenge began three years ago through a partnership among NASA, MIT and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. For the competition, high school students program the satellites to conduct a series of complex maneuvers in the ISS' microgravity. Objectives include positioning, docking and assembly. The team with the highest "software performance" wins the competition, and this year's winner is Team Rocket from Maryland, according to a tweet from NASA.

Today marked the culmination of months-long projects for the students with several milestones along the way. Students had to propose their projects, submit simulations and conduct ground testing before the flight testing. NASA hopes that requiring these steps will help strengthen participants' communication and project management skills in addition to their coding. For many of the students, the opportunity to conduct experiments in space was well worth the wait.

Outside of the competition, the mini SPHERES satellites are used to test NASA programs that will be implemented on larger satellites. The controlled ISS environment serves as a galactic space lab, leading to developments in more easily maintained, debris-avoiding spacecrafts.

You can see an example of what students have done before in the video below from the 2010 competition.

For more information on the program, see NASA's webpage and this article from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

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