Third annual Zero Robotics competition pits robots against each other on the International Space Station.
On Monday, high school students from across the country assembled in a lecture hall at MIT, patiently awaiting a call from NASA.
For four months, these students worked in teams as part of MIT’s Zero Robotics Challenge, a competition in which high school students program small robots to fly aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The robots, named SPHERES, were originally conceived and built by students in MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory.
These robots — roughly the size and shape of a basketball — run on compressed gas, and can be programmed to spin, revolve, hover and navigate through the air. In 2006, astronauts brought several of them aboard the ISS; a few years later, astronaut Greg Chamitoff PhD ’92 helped launch the Zero Robotics Challenge, making the robots accessible to high school students.
Chamitoff was on hand Monday, along with several colleagues who served as mentors during the challenge: former astronauts Leland Melvin, John Grunsfeld ’80 and Jeff Hoffman, now a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.
For this year’s challenge, students were given a “mission” to program robots to look for, mine and return alternative energy from fictitious asteroids in deep space. They were given coordinates for virtual asteroids located within the ISS and then had to develop computer codes to make a robot perform using various strategies, each of which earned a certain number of points.
For the past few months, student teams have been testing their codes in computer simulations, maneuvering virtual robots and competing against other teams in online games. The finalists — 38 teams with the best simulation scores — assembled at MIT on Monday for a chance to watch their codes play out in real robots on the ISS, 250 miles above Earth.
The students gathered in MIT’s 10-250 lecture hall. Many sported uniforms, including one team clad in NASA’s “pumpkin suit” orange. Once NASA successfully connected MIT with the ISS, a large screen at the front of the hall projected a live view from inside the station — and 10-250 erupted in cheers. Astronaut Don Pettit, onboard the ISS, responded, “We hear you loud and clear, MIT.”