Teens' robots compete in space
Jan 12, 2013 (Boston Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
More than 200 high school students from around the world watched a live downlink from space yesterday as small robotic satellites aboard the International Space Station raced 260 miles above earth using computer programs the teens wrote.
After three months of competition through online simulations, nine "alliances" of students from the U.S. and six from Europe competed in yesterday's finals of the Zero Robotics High School Tournament. The Europeans watched the event from the Netherlands, connected via teleconference to the Americans, who watched from an auditorium at MIT as an astronaut operated the SPHERES satellites that ran the students' code.
"It's been a blast, staying up on the hard nights, knowing problems needed to be fixed and then seeing it all run today," said Kayli Wilkinson, a 17-year-old Haverhill High senior who hopes to become a software engineer.
Organizers wanted to promote teamwork and science, technology, engineering and math -- or STEM -- education through the competition, which started with a field of 1,700 students, said professor David Miller, director of MIT's Space Systems Laboratory.
"When you look at satellites and aircraft, more than 70 percent of their functionality is provided through onboard software," Miller said. "By promoting STEM through a software-based competition, we're trying to motivate students to work in areas that are essential to our future."
The "game," as organizers called it, tasked students with figuring out how to navigate their way through a congested environment aboard the space station and dock with another satellite.
"It's the building blocks of the real-life problem of repairing satellites in orbit," Miller said. "It's also the first time high school students can be active participants in space, with their software running on the International Space Station. It's their opportunity to touch space."
Scores were based on how much fuel they used and how quickly and accurately they completed each maneuver.
"It was really challenging," said John Sanders, a 16-year-old sophomore at Haverhill High. "But once it all came together, it was something you could look back at and say, 'We all did that.' "
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