Australian students have performed well in an international competition that saw them control NASA robots on the International Space Station.
The Zero Robotics competition challenged students to test their coding skills on basketball-sized NASA robots known as SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) which float in zero gravity on the International Space Station (ISS).
The object of the game was to search for life on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, by drilling in the icy surface, avoiding geysers and returning samples to a base station for analysis. The student teams had to write code that would move the SPHERES autonomously to complete the challenge.
Teams from Sydney Boys High School and Sydney Technical High School made it to the semifinals of their competition before being eliminated, while James Ruse Agricultural High School in north-western Sydney took out first place in the Virtual Championship, a separate competition in which teams who hadn’t made it to the Championship finals got the chance to compete virtually with one another. As a result, the students then got to see their code used to move the SPHERES in the ISS.
Sheila Pooviah, the head of science at James Ruse, said her students were very happy with the outcome and were keen to enter it again.
“They’re very mathematically skilled and they love coding,” she said.
“They’re very interested in AI and I think that’s the field for them in the future. Australia’s just established a Space Agency. I’m hoping that some of these students will become engineers working in that field.”
Pooviah said James Ruse first competed in the event in 2016 after astronaut Greg Chamitoff and Archie Jackson, then dean of engineering at University of Sydney, visited the school to invite them to participate in the competition.
The university supported more than 300 Year 9-12 students from 56 high schools across NSW in the competition. Sixty current and former students volunteered to mentor the students, and over nine months guided the teams through the process of learning the computer code, maths and physics behind the motion of the robots, while also helping students develop valuable soft skills including teamwork, effective communication and international collaboration.
Time difference also became an issue in the finals. The event was live-streamed to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, Politecnico di Torino in Italy and the University of Sydney.
“The competition started at 10pm and our robots weren’t trialled until 5am,” she said.
“So the kids had to stay awake all night to see how they went in their round of competition but it was absolutely fabulous.”
The idea became out of MIT when a professor challenged his students to make a working copy of the light sabre training drone from Star Wars.
The spheres are about 20 cm in diameter, with a mass of about 4 kg. They are controlled by 12 carbon dioxide thrusters, which gives very precise movement, although their top speed is only about 0.3 m/s.
They were first launched to the ISS in 2006. Since then hey have been upgraded with a camera attachment and docking port.