Open season for European space robotics

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Models of the SPHERES robots sent to the International Space Station. The robots are programmed by students on Earth to perform operations based on real-life situations. Compressed air is used to move the spheres in all directions.

ESA participation in the pilot programme of ZeroRobotics involved collaborating with various universities and academic institutes. ESA provided the opportunity to send teachers from universities to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to receive training in Spheres operation and coding. The skills learnt were then passed on to the local high school teachers whose teams participated in the event.

Credits: ESA – Anneke Le’Floch

A new robotic race has begun in Europe. Following a brilliant performance earlier this year, a squadron of miniature satellites will come to life again on the International Space Station (ISS), following commands of students.


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Spheres – short for Synchronised Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites – are volleyball-sized satellites that have their own power, propulsion and navigation systems.

Last winter, 25 teams of secondary-school students from Europe operated the Spheres in a Zero-Robotics competition under the watchful eye of ESA astronaut André Kuipers.

Owing to the success of last year’s competition, it is now open to a larger number of European participants. The tournament this year will welcome up to 25 teams per ESA member state.

European students are invited to create programs to make the Spheres revolve, spin, move and hover. Volunteer mentors will help the youngsters to control the droids on the Space Station.

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Astronauts Don Pettit (left) and André Kuipers (right) watch as two SPHERES robots perform their operations as part of the SPHERES Zero-Robotics tournament.

On Earth former astronaut Thomas Reiter, ESA Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations, addressed students at the Massachusets Institute of Technology (MIT) from ESTEC. The students in Europe could follow an event at MIT including talks from five astronauts: Greg Chamitoff, Jeffrey Hoffman, Leland Melvin, John Grunsfeld and space tourist Richard Garriott.

Credits: NASA

How to master the Spheres

To compete for the finest moves, mentors must register their teams on the Zero-Robotics website for the European 2012 competition before September. Please create an account first, then register for the European tournament.

On 9 September, the game and rules will be unveiled at an event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. The event can be followed via a live webstream and questions posted to the organisers via Twitter.

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Three bowling-ball-sized free-flying satellites called Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station.

Credits: NASA

All tournaments are free of charge and open to upper secondary schools. Teachers and professionals are encouraged to work on the challenge together with the school teams.

Check the dates to submit code and play against other teams in simulation rounds to get the highest scores and reach the finals.

Finalists will participate in a special event to see the real Spheres responding to their commands on the Space Station in January 2013.

Competition information

9 September Kickoff webcast live from MIT
September–November Online simulation competitions
28 September 2D simulation competition deadline
12–14 October 2D ground demonstration
26 October 3D simulation competition
27 October Alliance formation event
14 December Final submission deadline

ESA’s 19 Member States are Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

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