The Zero Robotics Middle School Summer Program will hold its final competition on board the International Space Station (ISS) at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Friday (Aug. 14). The Zero Robotics (ZR) program is a programming competition where SPHERES satellites (robots) inside the ISS are controlled by programs developed by students.
The Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), Texas A&M University’s Dwight Look College of Engineering, the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M, the Texas Partnership for Out of School Time and NASA’s Johnson Space Center are the statewide sponsors for this second year of participation in the state of Texas. Dr. Greg Chamitoff and Dr. David Hyland, from the aerospace department, are co-directors of the statewide program and Katharine Leysath, from the Educational Outreach Programs office, is the statewide program manager.
The ZR Middle School Program is a five-week program with curriculum designed for students to participate approximately 15 hours per week. The program is designed to engage students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through the ZR game and to make clear connections between STEM and space science.
“Zero Robotics is a fantastic education program,” said Benjamin Morrell, lead student mentor for the program. “Over five weeks in summer, the students not only learn a critical skill of how to program and get to program a space robot, they learn about space science, physics, engineering, teamwork, collaboration and problem solving. All while having a fun time.”
This year’s competition is CORONA SPHERES — Conducting Research on Nearby Asteroids (CORONA) utilizing the Synchronized Position Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES). The mission is to use a robotic satellite to take pictures of points of interest on an asteroid. Students have written code for the robotic satellite to collect and upload as many new pictures as possible while avoiding effects of solar flares.
“The SPHERES robots are advanced research tools on board the International Space Station, a beacon of human achievement and international collaboration that is an incredible, one-of-a-kind facility, and Texas middle school students get to control these robots,” said Morrell.
The MIT Space Systems Laboratory, in conjunction with NASA, DARPA, and Aurora Flight Sciences, developed and operates the SPHERES system to provide a safe and reusable zero gravity platform to test sensor, control and autonomy technologies for use in satellites. There are currently three SPHERES satellites onboard the ISS, capable of rotation and translation in all directions. SPHERES is the only free floating experiment onboard the station, and is used by a range of guest scientists and engineers, including Texas A&M, for experiments that require three dimension unconstrained by gravity.
Texas, one of 11 states invited to join the program, has seven teams participating from regions across the state: Indian Spring Middle School (Waco); YMCA of Greater San Antonio; Boys and Girls Club of Edinburg; Boys and Girls Club of McAllen; Spillane Math and Science Club (Cypress-Fairbanks); Houston Museum of African American Culture; and Bread of Life, INC (Houston).
Over the course of the five weeks, students have honed their programs and competed against each other to come up with a final winning team from Texas. From there, all of the teams worked together to refine the final code that will be used during the competition.
“At the event in Johnson Space Center, all the Texas teams will be communicating live with the astronauts on the International Space Station, and watching the combined Texas Code controlling the robots on the International Space Station, in microgravity,” said Morrell. “Their code will be competing against other states to see who will be the national champion.”
Zero Robotics seeks to inspire the next generation of great minds by allowing them unprecedented access to space at the high school and middle school level. By making the benefits and resources of the space program tangible to students, Zero Robotics aims to cultivate an appreciation of science, technology, engineering and math through healthy, immersive, collaborative competition.