International Space Station Benefits for Humanity

Europe's Alliance with Space Droids

Between video games and sci-fi movies, a robotic squadron of miniature satellites will come to life aboard the International Space Station obeying the commands of young students.

For the first time, the European Space Agency (ESA) is participating in NASA and Massachusetts's Institute of Technology or MIT's Zero-Robotics ( competition, a chance for high school students to program droids for action on the Space Station. SPHERES - also known as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites - are volleyball-sized satellites with their own power, propulsion, computers and navigation.

The challenge to remotely control them began in the United States, where an adventurous professor from the MIT found inspiration in the Star Wars saga to create these intriguing robots. The mini-spacecraft have been used inside the station since 2006 to test autonomous rendezvous and docking maneuvers.

Now formation flying in zero-gravity becomes a programming issue also for European students. Up to 25 schools from ESA member states are invited to create rival programs which will control three SPHERES in real time on the space station.

Each European school will be assigned a local SPHERES expert familiar with the coding requirements of the droids. Sponsored by ESA, several university staff coming from Europe (Politecnico of Torino, Padova, Aachen and Berlin universities) are being trained at MIT this very summer.

The competition is not only about feeding the satellites with sets of commands. The local experts are getting ready to help students build critical engineering skills, such as problem solving, design thought process, operations training and teamwork. Their results could lead to important advances for satellite servicing and vehicle assembly in orbit.

Teams in the U.S. and Europe started testing their algorithms under realistic conditions in September 2011. They are competing in elimination rounds against each other, with finals on both sides of the Atlantic took place in December.

The software of the top 10 winners will be uploaded and run in the three weightless spheres by the astronauts. The exciting final will be streamed lived at ESA's technology center in the Netherlands known as ESTEC with a unique touch: a 3D video is expected to be shown to appreciate the guidance navigation and control of the SPHERES.

This is just the beginning of Europe's alliance with the space droids, the first in a string of global education projects with the station as a common scientific platform for students worldwide. If the pilot experience proves successful this year, ESA anticipates including larger numbers of participants from all over Europe in future competitions. And may the force be with them.