Silver and bronze for Australian high school students in international space race

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It was a dream come true for the Australian high school students who took control of NASA robots on the International Space Station last month, during the 2016/17 Zero Robotics Championship Final, run by the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies.

The competition, which began in May last year and progressed through multiple rounds of increasing complexity, challenged participants to test their coding skills on NASA robots known as SPHERES (Synchronized, Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites).

Finals were held on the International Space Station, and streamed around the world, on Friday 27 January. In Australia, local teams gathered to watch the finals event at a special celebration held at the University of Sydney’s Camperdown campus.

Supported by the University of Sydney, 20 high school teams from across NSW participated in the competition, with five of the teams (Barker College, Fort St High School, Gosford High School, James Ruse Agricultural High School and North Sydney Boys High School) getting the opportunity to participate in the championship event.

In the final showdown, the team from North Sydney Boys High School led an alliance with crews from the US and Romania to fine-tune their code that took control of the SPHERES on the International Space Station, and then watched live as the astronauts set up the SPHERES for them to compete against each other in challenges. The team made it through to the championship match and took out second place overall in the competition.

Following closely behind was the Gosford High School team, whose alliance with two US teams finished in third place overall.

“The whole event was a huge success. For those teams who made it to the space station, this is a profound achievement and it was great to see that the students got a big kick out of seeing their code in space”, said Benjamin Morrell, Zero Robotics Australia Coordinator from the University of Sydney.

“Hopefully this incredible achievement marks a great start to the school year.”

The competition, created by University of Sydney’s former NASA astronaut Professor Greg Chamitoff and top tech school Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is a global robotics challenge where high school students have the opportunity to utilise the International Space Station as a laboratory to test their programming on NASA robots known as SPHERES (Synchronized, Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites).

“You program stuff in space, how much cooler can you get?” said Luke Tuthill, a member of Gosford High School’s team who recently finished Year 12 and hopes to study Computer Science at university this year.

“Through Zero Robotics, students not only gain valuable skills in engineering, maths, physics, robotics and coding, but they’re also given the chance to put those skills to the test in an incredible and exciting out-of-this-world environment – on the International Space Station,” Professor Chamitoff said.

A reply of the finals can be seen at http://webcast.mit.edu/spr2017/Spheres/1704/

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