Students Experience the Power of Controlling Satellites in Space

Earth-bound electronic games can’t compete with actually controlling a squadron of miniature robotic satellites in space. Through the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites- Zero Robotics (SPHERES-Zero-Robotics) challenge, students compete to experience this power and excitement.

Using a trio of autonomous satellites on the International Space Station, SPHERES-Zero-Robotics gives students the chance to develop software to guide robots through a virtual obstacle course aboard the space station. High school students write algorithms for specific tasks for the volleyball-sized robotic satellites, and run them as virtual simulations on a computer and under realistic microgravity conditions in elimination rounds. Finalists have their programs sent to the station, where an astronaut loads them into the SPHERES satellites and monitors their movements to help determine a winning student team. The exciting final competition streams live at the European Space Agency (ESA) technology center in the Netherlands, European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The competition involves NASA, MIT, ESA and the Russian Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS). It is open to teams from high schools around the world. In the U.S., many states use the competition to introduce young people to the practical applications of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The satellites have their own power, propulsion, computers and navigation, using 12 small thrusters to rotate and move around. They have been used inside the station since 2006 to test autonomous rendezvous and docking maneuvers and liquid slosh in microgravity.

The competition is about more than feeding the satellites sets of commands; local experts help students build critical engineering skills such as problem solving, design thought process, operations training and teamwork—all skills that could lead to the development of software to enable autonomous robots to accomplish complex tasks in the future. Their results could lead to important advances for satellite servicing and vehicle assembly in orbit.

“Zero Robotics aims to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers,” said Jeff Hoffman, veteran NASA astronaut and SPHERES co-investigator with MIT. “We wanted to provide students with the chance to interact directly with NASA and space. This competition encourages them to develop their math and science skills as well as an appreciation for the physics involved in space engineering.” Alvar Saenz-Otero, the investigation’s primary investigator, founded the program at MIT.

The program helps teachers connect with students, said Shannon Bales, a STEM lead with the Alabama Afterschool Community Network, an initiative to promote positive development and learning when students are out of school. Bales said it is exciting for students to see the results of their hard work culminate with an astronaut running their programming live on the space station.

“It’s so rewarding for them and for us,” Bales said. “Last year, a parent told me their son really came out of his shell after Zero Robotics and how much he loved working on it. The program is making a difference in students’ lives and that’s why we do it.” The students have fun, exercise creativity, and learn valuable problem-solving skills, and feel like they are contributing to NASA research, she added.

The SPHERES-Zero-Robotics program provides students a unique and valuable opportunity to engage in space research and see the possibility of being a part of NASA’s mission to explore. No mere game can compete with that.

Russian cosmonaut Andrei Borisenko and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson help perform the finals of the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) Zero Robotics competition on the station.

Credit: Bill Hubscher, Melissa Gaskill
International Space Station Program Science Office
Johnson Space Center