Middle school students from across the Treasure Valley had the unique opportunity Tuesday to link up with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
Via satellite, the astronauts demonstrated—in zero gravity—something called SPHERES. That's an acronym for synchronized position hole engage reorient experimental satellites. Meanwhile, back on earth, the students were learning how to write code for the SPHERES through a project called Zero Robotics.
“I lived on board the ISS, so knew about the SPHERES for quite a long time, and I was looking for opportunities to get involved,” said Barbra Morgan, former NASA astronaut, current Boise State professor and mentor to the student team. “This opportunity came to me when I was asked to serve as the astronaut last year for the high school program at MIT. That gave me a lot more insight to the program. When the time came to expand, they were looking for people to help pilot the middle school program. I got the call and said of course.”
Over five weeks of training, the students learned the physics and math behind the operation of the SPHERES. Once the student-written codes were complete, they were uplinked to the ISS SPHERES. In particular, the students simulated a clean-up of orbital debris.
“There’s a lot of orbital debris around our planet, and their job was to let out a little bit of high speed dust come out of their satellite and hit that debris, so it would slow down and gravity would pull it back towards Earth to burn up in the atmosphere,” said Morgan. “What’s great about the program is the SPHERES aren’t toys for kids. They’re real experimental satellites that scientists and engineers use aboard the ISS.”
The Zero Robotics program was a collaboration between Warren Hull, a video broadcasting and technology teacher from South Junior High, and Guy Falconer, technology and engineering teacher from the Sage International School.
“I got a phone call from Barbra Morgan, who was referred to me by other teachers with busy schedules, and she pitched it to me in 45 minutes and that was it,” said Hull.
Based on Hull and Falconer’s success with the program right out of the gate, Zero Robotics could see many more years in Idaho schools. The South Idaho team didn’t win the competition, but for students and teachers with no prior experience in programming, Hull and Morgan agreed that their students performed impressively. Of the almost 30 middle schools that competed this summer, only nine codes were selected for uplink to the ISS of which the South Idaho team was one.
Morgan said the program already has kids-turned-professional-programmers so excited to compete again in the coming years.
“When you take kids at a young age and give them these opportunities, they’ll have that experience for life," she said. "They may not end up becoming programmers, but they definitely have that interest, and it’s skill they can keep throughout their academic career.”