An MIT Alumni Association Publication
If you’re feeling spaced out this morning, you’re not alone. Teams of high school students are at MIT today for the finale of the third annual Zero Robotics SPHERES Challenge, a worldwide competition where students program satellites to complete tasks onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics has joined with NASA, Aurora Flight Sciences, TopCoder, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in sponsoring the competition. The finale takes place today at MIT from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Watch it live on NASA TV or the Zero Robotics site.

In the competition, NASA will upload software developed by the high school students onto SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites), basketball-sized satellites created at MIT, aboard the ISS. Students wrote algorithms for the SPHERES satellites, giving them the opportunity the opportunity to act as simulated ground controllers for space research.

The tournament began in September with over 2,000 students from 147 teams creating algorithms and devising codes. The top 27 teams will have their code sent to the space station where, during today’s competition, astronauts in microgravity will command the satellites to execute the teams’ flight programs. The team with the highest software performance over several rounds of the competition wins the challenge.

SPHERES satellites were developed at MIT in 1999 and first used aboard the ISS in 2006. In addition to the competition, the satellites are used inside the space station to conduct formation flight maneuvers for spacecraft guidance navigation, control, and docking, and they can test a wide range of hardware and software at an affordable cost.

David W. Miller, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and research scientist Alvar Saenz-Otero PhD '05 serve as principal investigator and co-investigator, respectively, of the challenge.

For more information on SPHERES, watch a 2009 video where the MIT SPHERES Team held a test session with astronauts Michael Barratt and Timothy Kopra aboard the International Space Station set to the score from "An der schönen blauen Donau" (On The Beautiful Blue Danube) by Johann Strauss II.

Next Up