Students compete to race robots on the International Space Station thanks to the Spheres Zero Robotics Competition. Open to middle and high school students in the United States and European Space Agency member-nations, the program develops students' programming skills and helps researchers test satellite maneuvers in space.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wanted to test spacecraft docking and maneuvering techniques so they developed robots called Spheres, or Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites. These robots stay inside the International Space Station and use compressed air thrusters to move around. Researchers can program the Spheres robots to fly in formation and interact with each other and their surroundings. They can even program virtual surroundings to see how the robots interact in a simulated environment.
Nasa and MIT opened the Spheres programs to US high school students in 2009 and 2010. The competition is now open to high school and middle school students in the United States and member-nations of the European Space Agency.
Teams compete in a series of regional trials during which they write the operating program for the Spheres and upload it to an online simulator. Programs that complete a virtual obstacle course using the least amount of propellant possible advance to the next round. US finalists join scientists at the MIT campus to watch the real Spheres robots execute their programs via a live video stream from the International Space Station.