High schoolers' codes run by ISS crew in MIT tournament

Zero Robotics Tournament high school competitors from around the US gather at MIT to watch, via live downlink, as satellites aboard the International Space Station perform tasks the students coded. (Joshua Woodard photograph)
Zero Robotics Tournament high school competitors from around the US gather at MIT to watch, via live downlink, as satellites aboard the International Space Station perform tasks the students coded. (Joshua Woodard photograph)
January 25, 2018

By Andrew Owens

The 2017 Zero Robotics High School Tournament Finals came to a close January 11, 2018, wrapping up a competition where the referees are astronauts and the playing field is moving at more than 17,000 miles per hour, 250 miles above the Earth. Hundreds of students from 16 countries had spent months developing code and running virtual simulations, and now it was time to see how their algorithms would perform on real hardware on the International Space Station (ISS).

Students gathered at MIT, and at parallel events at the University of Sydney in Australia and Politecnico di Turino in Italy, to watch their codes control soccer-ball sized SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellites), operated aboard the ISS by astronaut Joe Acaba and cosmonaut Alexander  Misurkin. The competition required programming SPHERES to fly across an imaginary icy terrain, drill for samples and search for microbial life forms. The SPHERES have to navigate hills and valleys, and avoid random geysers triggered by their drilling that can push the satellite away, while being careful to conserve fuel.

Two SPHERES, running code from different teams, face off in three-minute matches, racing to collect the most valuable samples and return them to base.

The students have been developing their code since September, working through online simulation rounds of increasing complexity. The competition began with 232 teams; after two elimination rounds, 48 remained. These were grouped into 16 "alliances" of three teams each for the Zero Robotics finals, where they would run their code on real hardware in space. This is no longer a simulation.

Three SPHERES, conceived and developed for NASA by MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department capstone course students in the Space Systems Laboratory (SSL), were deployed inside the space station in 2006. Each satellite has 12 small thrusters, powered by compressed carbon dioxide, that allow it to move and rotate freely. Ultrasound beacons on the SPHERES and inside the station allow the satellites' onboard computers to keep track of where it is. NASA uses SPHERES to test spacecraft control algorithms, including docking, collision avoidance, and formation flying.

"(Zero Robotics) is one of the coolest things you can do in high school," says Jack Timmins, a senior at Charlottesville High School and member of Team BACON, the Best All-Around Club of Nerds. He and team president Stephen Newman returned to MIT for their third and fourth year, respectively, in the Zero Robotics finals. BACON has been competing since the first nation-wide Zero Robotics challenge in 2010. Timmins and Newman say the only time they haven't made it to the ISS finals at MIT is when a snowstorm prevented them from traveling.

Real-world hardware, real-world challenges

The switch from simulation to hardware comes with its own challenges. There is more uncertainty, or noise, in parameters such as location and thrust levels. Sometimes the hardware doesn't fully cooperate.

This year, one of the SPHERES behaved erratically, sometimes not moving in the way instructed by the students' code. The problem was likely due to a thruster that did not always fire when commanded. Danilo Roascio, Course 16 post-doc and SPHERES Lead Scientist in the SSL, says that, unfortunately, this happens in some form each year, and comes with the territory when working with hardware that has been on the space station for more than a decade. Hardware issues, like stuck thrusters, can be frustrating, says Newman, but team members focus on overall experience. Each spring, they run a coding school for new team members. "We want this to be open to everyone," Roascio says. The results of that strategy are apparent in the makeup of the team sitting in a row in the auditorium, since half of the 14-person team is competing for the first time this year, and five are freshmen.

In addition to building engineering skills, the competition also helps students "develop the skills needed to work collaboratively across cultural, national, and linguistic boundaries," says Katie Magrane, Zero Robotics program manager and Innovation Learning Center executive director.

Matt Shields, a teacher at Charlottesville HS and coach for team BACON, says that, once the team got started "they pretty much run themselves." Zero Robotics, and the chance to travel for the ISS finals, has been a great experience for the students. They get to meet scientists and astronauts, tour the MIT campus and see the MIT museum, and - maybe best of all - see their code run on the space station. "These kids are all nerds," says Shields, "and MIT is a sort of Mecca, a pilgrimage to make."

Zero Robotics affects academic, professional futures

Some competitors eventually attend MIT. "Traveling to MIT for the finals was definitely a highlight of each year," says Ben Rosen-Filardo, a Course 1 (Civil and Environmental Engineering) senior. Ben's Montclair, NJ team won the 2012 tournament. "Zero Robotics played a key role in my decision to come to MIT, a decision I'm incredibly happy to have made."

After college, some Zero Robotics participants have ended up at major aerospace companies across the country, including SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Orbital ATK.

Steve Swanson, former astronaut and guest speaker at the Zero Robotics finals, sees the competition as a training ground for the next generation. "NASA needs a pipeline of engineers," he says, and competitions like Zero Robotics are part of that STEM education. Swanson has a unique perspective on the competition, since he has seen it from both sides. He mentored his son's team in Texas several years ago, and he was one of the astronaut referees on board the ISS in 2014.

After a full morning of guest speakers, competition rounds, and plenty of selfies with astronauts and scientists, the competition came down to the championship round: BeachPin1701 vs. Naughty Prions and Lions. Since there was only time for one round, and one of the competitors would have to use a SPHERE that was having thruster issues, game officials declared a tie, naming the teams co-champions.

"Running a competition real-time on the space station always has its challenges," says Alvar Saenz-Otero, SSL director and Zero Robotics co-founder, "But that's part of the reality of working in space." Whether the SPHERES work perfectly or there are unanticipated hardware issues, it's all part of the educational experience for the students. The competitors need to adapt to and overcome those challenges, both good parts and bad, he says.

"This is one of my high points of the year," says Dan Barstow, the ISS education at CASIS, the Center for the Advancement of Science In Space. CASIS has been a partner with Zero Robotics since the beginning. Barstow sees the competition as part of an important evolution in STEM education: "STEM has to transition from this old model of reading books, listening to lectures, and taking tests, into deep immersion in doing real things."


Andrew Owens is a PhD candidate in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a NASA Space Technology Research Fellow in the Strategic Engineering Research Group. His research focuses on logistics and risk assessment and optimization for crewed deep-space mission.