2013 Zero Robotics Tournament Mini Satellites
July 5, 2013

2013 Zero Robotics Tournament Turns ISS Into Lab For Mini-Satellites

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

NASA is inviting European students to participate in the annual Zero Robotics tournament, giving kids a chance to play a robot game on the International Space Station (ISS).

The Zero Robotics tournament turns the orbiting laboratory into a playing field for students to control mini satellites, known as SPHERES, with self-developed software. These volleyball-sized satellites move around the space station using 12 jets powered by compressed gas, each equipped with its own power, propulsion and navigation system.

This is the third time European contenders have had the chance to run their SPHERES code in space. NASA said the goal of the tournament is to help young students build vital engineering skills such as problem solving, software operations and teamwork.

"Just as in any international competition, the road to the finals is long and challenging. The contest starts with simulation competitions of increasing difficulty held online," NASA said. "Competitors can create and visualize their code to get ready for the game from a Web browser and free of charge."

According to the space agency, finalists from the online simulation will see their commands run by the SPHERES satellites on the space station transmitted live from space. Each of the finalists will be composed of a three-team alliance from different European countries.

The final event for the tournament will be held in January, 2014 with the US teams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the European teams at ESA's ESTEC Space Research and Technology Center.

The registration for the 2013 European Space Agency High School Tournament is open to secondary-school students from ESA member states until September. NASA says teams must consist of between three and ten students.

Registration will last from June until September. During this time frame, students will be able to run through tutorials and free practice.

In 2012, the competition involved extracting minerals from asteroids. The SPHERE satellites could collect tools if needed and start mining on one of two virtual asteroids.

The SPHERE satellites, or Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellites, were developed at MIT. The first three were originally launched toward the space station in 2006 aboard a Russian rocket. Two additional SPHERE satellites were carried up by a US space shuttle. Eventually, space vehicles like SPHERE will be able to fly on their own and maintain their positions through radio links, interacting constantly with one another to maintain specific positions in relation to each other. A gang of instruments like these could eventually serve as parts of a massive telescope looking for planets near other stars.