The Zero Robotics tournament is a project that organizes an annual robotics programming competition with a final round held live aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and conducted by one of the astronauts. Teams are composed of high school students from the United States and European Space Agency (ESA) member countries.
To win the final round, competitors program a SPHERES robot to navigate a microgravity environment while avoiding obstacles, as well as complete a specific mission that changes every year.
SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) robots, are volleyball-sized spherical satellites used to test instructions for spacecraft performing autonomous rendezvous and docking maneuvers.
Image: MIT Space Systems Lab
SPHERES use a series of 12 cold gas (CO2) propulsion jets along with ultrasound beacons, accelerometers, and gyroscopes, to navigate through a microgravity environment.
The programs are completely autonomous: students cannot control the satellite during the test itself.
Before teams reach the final championship round held on the ISS, they must first win out against other teams in a series of increasingly difficult online competitions that simulate the environment of the real SPHERES.
The game originated as a remedy to the current lack of interest among students in DARPA, NASA and MIT. The competition is designed as an educational opportunity for students, who learn a great deal about coding, math, physics, working with others, and problem-solving in general, and will hopefully be inspired to pursue a career in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) studies.
This is a 5-week program designed to teach younger students how to program through a graphical interface. The first multi-state program was held in 2013 in the states of California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, and Massachusettes. The program plans to expand to more states in 2014 and beyond.
The following countries are partnered with ESA and therefore allowed to participate in the Zero Robotics tournament: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. The United States is the only country not part of ESA that is allowed to register students in the tournament.