Zero Robotics is an educational program that hosts tournaments to teach middle and high school students to write code and program with robots on the International Space Station (ISS). Professor Danielle Wood, Director of the Space Enabled Research Group, took over leadership of the Zero Robotics Educational Outreach Program in 2020 at the invitation of the founders. The program was founded over a decade ago by MIT’s Alvar Saenz-Otero, Jacob Katz and David Miller and co-led by a team from Innovation Learning Center and Aurora Flight Sciences, The Zero Robotics program originally allowed students to use robotics called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites); this system was developed by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, in conjunction with NASA, DARPA, and Aurora Flight Sciences, to provide a safe and reusable zero gravity platform to test sensor, control, and autonomy technologies for use in satellites. In 2022, the Zero Robotics summer program used the new free-flying robotic system Astrobee for the first time. Astrobee is a system of robots built and operated by NASA; the Astrobee project builds on the legacy of SPHERES and took over the tasks as SPHERES retired in 2019. The Astrobee system was designed and built at NASA’s Ames Research Center for use inside the ISS. Astrobee is a testbed to explore the capabilities of robotic systems in space to perform tasks, test satellite maneuvers and assist astronauts.
MIT collaborates with the Innovation Learning Center to implement Zero Robotics and serve students and educators. Sponsors for the program have included NASA, Aerospace Corporation, Aurora Flight Sciences, and the ISS National Laboratory which is operated by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.
In summer 2022, Zero Robotics held the first tournament with new robots called Astrobee. The game challenge for 2022 year was called “The Great Astro-Spelling-Bee.” Students were asked to use the trajectories of Astrobee to spell out a password needed to synchronously reboot the ISS power system during an EVA. The students need to select letters with complexity and length constraints and design the trajectories that can effectively and efficiently convey the required message. For 2022, 20 teams and 180 middle school students participated in the middle school competition. During the event, MIT was also able to hold a field day for 3 local teams in Boston area. In-person activities related to the game challenge and a hands-on workshop on innovative coding are provided to students. The final competition was live streamed from the ISS on August 3rd, with students both in-person at local hosting locations and watching virtually.
For 2023, Space Enabled is leading a team to host a middle school program for US students and a special edition of Zero Robotics serving university students in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE Zero Robotics Programming Challenge is celebrating the collaboration between NASA and the UAE space program as the second astronaut from the UAE, Sultan Al Neyadi, performs a mission on the International Space Station.