Two modified Raspberry Pi computers will be sent to the International Space Station with British astronaut Tim Peake next year to allow school children to run experiments in space.
Announced today by the UK Space Agency and the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the project, dubbed the Astro Pi Competition, invites primary and secondary school children to submit ideas and write code for space experiments that could be done using the two credit-card-sized units, with the ultimate aim to encourage interest in coding and spacecraft engineering among the young generation.
“Our project is a part of a much bigger challenge and that is to prepare young people for the challenges of the 21st century,” said the UK Space Agency’s CEO David Parker at the launch event.
“Most of the jobs that are foreseen to be created by the UK’s booming space industry in the upcoming years won’t be about designing and building spacecraft, they will be about using data, about making software to control space missions. The experience with the level of precision and accuracy the children will get when writing code for Raspberry Pi is exactly what one needs for success of any space mission.”
While the primary school children are invited to invent bold ideas with Raspberry Pi engineers writing the code for the two best teams, secondary school students will have to write their code themselves. The secondary school group will be divided into three age categories with two teams from each category to be given the chance to run their experiments on the ISS.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation has developed a sensor-packed extension to be used on top of the conventional Raspberry Pi computer to run the experiments.
“The Astro Pi package consists of a top board and an expansion board which sits on top of a regular Raspberry Pi that is identical to the Raspberry Pi that you can buy in shops,” explained Eben Upton, leader of the Raspberry Pi engineering team.
“The Astro Pi board adds all those sensors and input and output capabilities that we need for the children to do that type of experiments.”
A gyroscope and an accelerometer enabling monitoring of the position of the station are part of the set, as well as sensors for control of the inside environment including temperature, pressure and humidity. The units, which are currently being tested in cooperation with the European Space Agency to qualify for human space flight, will also be fitted with a camera, an RGB LED display and battery-powered clock.
“There is actually no single goal for the hardware, the idea is that it creates many coding opportunities so that the children can pick and choose from these sensors and do whatever they want,” said Raspberry Pi’s David Honess.
“We are hoping they could take data from one or more sensors and combine them into some kind of useful applications that would serve on the space station – like an environmental alarm, for example, that could trigger a warning every time the temperature, the humidity or the pressure gets outside normal acceptable values.”
As every object bound for a space mission, the Astro Pi has to undergo thorough testing to prove its ability to survive the harsh environment but also to demonstrate it won’t present any hazards for the human crew aboard the ISS.
“You have to ensure that it’s safe and that it can safely consume power from the ISS so there is interface testing and safety testing,” Honess explained. “There are many questions to answer – will it release harmful gases into the atmosphere? Could the astronauts cut their hands on it? We are doing a lot of work around rationally proving that none of these possibilities can occur on the space station.”
The two flight units have recently completed the first phase of testing. Eventually, the computers will be sealed inside a smooth aluminium box covering all sharp edges, connectors and protrusions to make sure the computers cannot injure anyone.
The team hopes the astronauts will take to Raspberry Pi similarly to millions of children around the world and will experiment with it beyond the four hours of Tim Peake’s time allocated by the UK Space Agency for the experiments.
“We hope that when Tim Peake gets bored, for example over the weekend, he will just go and tinker with the Raspberry Pi a bit and perhaps he will surprise us with something clever which he will have done in his free time,” Honess said.
The engineering team sees the stint at the ISS as only the first step in Raspberry Pi’s bold space future. In particular, they believe, the pocket-sized unit could provide a convenient hardware solution for the booming cubesat sector.
“I would eventually like to see a Raspberry Pi travelling on an interstellar mission,” said Upton. “The ISS is the first step on the ladder, after that it would be great to get something to the Moon, it would be lovely to get something to Mars and eventually it would be fantastic to get something on an interstellar trajectory.”
A bold ambition as it may sound but maybe not completely out of reach for the enormously successful project that has sold four million units since its launch in 2012.
The Astro Pi competition will be officially launched in January, with the first teams to be selected as early as April 2015 ahead of Peake’s November launch.
Being the first state-supported British astronaut, Peake will spent six months aboard the ISS as part of the Principia mission, named after Isaac Newton’s Principia Naturalis, a key work that formed the foundation of modern physics.