August 13, 2015 – On Friday August 14th, 2015 students in Colorado’s pilot Zero Robotics program will gather at the Little Thompson Observatory in Berthoud to watch a live broadcast from the International Space Station. Astronauts Scott Kelly, Kimiya Yui and Oleg Kononenko will control satellites aboard the International Space Station with computer code written by middle school students as part of their Zero Robotics summer program.
Zero Robotics is a robotics programming competition that allows middle-school and high school students to work in teams to code and control Synchronized, Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES). The game/challenge is designed by MIT students and changes every year to reflect a current need/research area of NASA.
This year’s game is CoronaSPHERES or Conducting Optical Research on Nearby Asteroids. Teams program SPHERES to take and upload pictures of Points of Interest (POIs) of an asteroid while avoiding damage from solar flares and avoiding a collision with another SPHERE and the asteroid.
According to one participant, Christopher Tunnicliff, “Zero Robotics is awesome! We got to program satellites to take pictures of asteroids while avoiding solar flares. It inspired me to be a rocket scientist when I grow up.”
During the five-week program middle school students learned about space, physics, mathematics, and computer programming. The program uses curriculum from MIT and is a mix of interactive activities and hands-on experience programming the SPHERES in anticipation of the final competition.
“Learning about space was fascinating and I learned a lot of new programming skills,” said Garrett Morali.
Students were treated to a session in the Little Thompson Observatory (LTO) and learned about radio, reflecting and refracting telescopes as well as constellations. Thompson School District hosted the free pilot program at Berthoud High, which was open to interested students from any district and run by Action Works.
The Middle School Zero Robotics Summer Program began five years ago in the Boston area, centered on Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has since grown to a program with locations around the country, including Alabama, California, Colorado, D.C. Metro/Maryland, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, and West Virginia. Zero Robotics is led by MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory, which originally designed the SPHERES, with partners MIT, Aurora Flight Sciences and the Innovation Learning Center.
The Middle school competition is sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the Northrop Grumman Foundation, and NASA. This is Colorado’s first year participating in this MIT/NASA collaborative program.