Informal science education, DARPA and NASA style

I like to mention imaginative science education projects from time to time and this one caught my attention. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are offering students the opportunity to have one of their experiments tested under live conditions in outer space. From the Kit Eaton June 20, 2011 article (How NASA, DARPA Are Keeping Kids Interested In Space),

To keep folks interested [now that the Space Shuttle era is over], NASA and DARPA are pushing (a little) money into a program that’s directly aimed at students themselves.

Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) are an existing experiment that uses tiny ball-shaped robots that fly inside the International Space Station. They test techniques for keeping real satellites maneuvering in sync so that they can rendezvous and work as part of a swarm–a task that’s useful for autonomous satellite servicing, and even the building of future spacecraft.

The offer that NASA’s making is that if you design an interesting experiment, and it wins their approval, it’ll be used to fly the SPHERES robots for real. In space.

There are more details about the 2011 SPHERES Challenge tournament at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Zero Robotics website. Here’s a little of the information available on that site,

“Zero Robotics” is a robotics programming competition that opens the world-class research facilities on the International Space Station (ISS) to high-school students. Students will actually write programs at their High School that may control a satellite in space! The goal is to build critical engineering skills for students, such as problem solving, design thought process, operations training, and team work. Ultimately we hope to inspire future scientists and engineers so that they will view working in space as “normal”, and will grow up pushing the limits of engineering and space exploration.

They’ve had annual challenges since 2009 and this year’s is the SPHERES challenge. There are six stages to this year’s competition,

The 2011 SPHERES Challenge tournament has 6 stages:

  1. Learn to program / tutorials / initial programming
  2. 2D Simulation: the game will be played in 2-dimensions. All teams will submit a player and will compete, in a full round robin simulation, against all other teams. Their score will count towards elimination later on, but no teams will be eliminated in this round.
  3. 2D Ground Competition: the top scorers from the 2D simulation will see their players compete against each other on the SPHERES ground satellites, learning directly some of the important differences between simulation and real hardware. Scores in this round will not count towards elimination, as not all teams will compete. All teams will be able  to watch the competition at MIT via webcast.
  4. 3D Simulation: all participating teams will extend their game to 3 dimensions and submit their final individual player. MIT will run a full round robin simulation. The score of this round will be combined with the score of the 2D simulation to seed all teams.
  5. 3D Semi-Finals: the top 48 teams will be required to form alliances of 3 teams per player, creating a total of 16 players. Preference will be given to the choices of higher seeds. These alliances will compete in a full round-robin simulation. The top scoring players/alliances will be invited to submit an entry for the ISS finals.
  6. ISS Finals: the top 9 players of the semi-finals will be invited to participate in the ISS finals (a total of 27 teams, as there will be 3 teams per player).  Teams may visit MIT to see the live feed, or watch via the webcast. Players will compete in a bracketed round-robin aboard the ISS and a champion will be declared.   (note: date depends on astronaut time availability)

This is a competition for US high school students from grades 9 – 12.  The application deadline is Sept. 5, 2011.

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