Students were steering miniature satellites inside the International Space Station as a part of the Zero Robotics competition

Space station turns into playground with Zero Robotics

Four student teams from across Europe met last week in the European Space Agency’s technical centre to steer small satellites aboard the International Space Stations in the Zero Robotics competition.

Pretending that a comet is heading towards the Earth, threatening to wipe out terrestrial life, the teams were remotely guiding the small sphere-like objects located inside the station to prevent the disaster.

One hundred and forty students gathered in Esa’s technical centre ESTEC in the Netherlands and joined their US counterparts based in the facilities of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their task was to write code to redirect the incoming comet while taking space debris and limited laser capabilities into account.

The objects used for the game, called the Spheres – Synchronised Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites – are about the size of a volleyball. They are powered by 12 jets using compressed gas and have their own power and navigation systems.

Nasa astronaut Richard Mastracchio and cosmonaut Oleg Kotov were overseeing the game from aboard the station.

“It was fascinating to see how our code woke up the Spheres floating next to the astronauts,” said Eva Krebs, from the German team Käthe in Space.

“At school our commands stayed on the screen of our computers, but this time we could see the real thing working in space.”

The contest started last year with online rounds of increasing difficulty. To simulate the real-life experience, the competing teams had to deal with the loss of signal, exhausted batteries and tight deadlines.

The competing teams were international, consisting of three sub-teams from across Europe. This year, students from Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Romania, Belgium and the Netherlands took part in the competition.

“Our strategy was to navigate towards the laser, power-up, avoid the space debris, take the power-up and shoot the comet,” Tommaso Chemello, a member of the winning team, said about the strategy.

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