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Australian first: students control NASA robots in space

12 February 2016
Students control robots on the International Space Station

Mission accomplished with the successful control of robots on the International Space Station by Australia's first Zero Robotics finalists from Normanhurst Boys High School.

As part of its STEM outreach activities the University of Sydney sponsored 10 Sydney metropolitan teams in Zero Robotics, an international computer programming challenge that sees high school students from across the globe solve real problems with NASA research robots. The competition culminates with a final run on the International Space Station (ISS) with assistance from the astronauts on board.

“Zero Robotics requires teams to work with Star Wars inspired, ball-like robots called SPHERES that conduct tasks aboard the International Space Station (ISS),” says Benjamin Morrell, Aerospace PhD candidate at the University of Sydney and co-ordinator of the Australian contestants.

 “The online competition is tied to actual space research and student teams are asked to program the SPHERES to solve a problem of interest to NASA,” Ben says.

“The Zero Robotics challenge this years was  ‘SpySPHERES’ which required two spheres to collect simulated space junk while competing against each other to take photographs of the other satellite and beam them back to Earth, whilst avoiding being photographed themselves,” states Ben.

The competition, which began in August last year and progressed through multiple rounds of increasing complexity, challenged participants to test and improve their code. Finals were held on the International Space Station, and streamed around the world, on Australia Day.

In the final showdown, the crew from Normanhurst led an alliance with teams from Europe to fine tune their code that took control on the SPHERES on the International Space Station, and then watched live as the astronauts set up the SPHERES for them to control.

Mr Peter Davis, Head Teacher Technological and Applied Studies at Normanhurst Boys High School says the space robotics journey has been an invaluable experience for the team.

“In the lead-up to the finals our students participated in several phases of virtual competition with teams in Germany and Romania,” Mr Davis says.

“They needed to work across time zones and language differences to progress towards the finals.

The competition finished with a live broadcast back to earth with the team’s ISS astronaut conducting the championship competition in microgravity.

“Being involved in a program like Zero Robotics shows students that with some dedication and hard work they can achieve great outcomes with real impact. The experience can then help show students that they can go on to do amazing things.

“If you programmed NASA’s research robot on the International Space Station in High School, there are no limits to what you can do next!” says Davis.

See the team from Normanhurst Boys High School featured on ABC Television's 7:30.

Victoria Hollick

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