Pope John Robotics Team advances to semi-finals in NASA competition

| 15 Feb 2012 | 10:15

    Using math and physics, team may win their way into competition in space Sparta — Pope John XXIII Regional High School of Sparta placed fourth in the nation after the qualifying rounds of a NASA robotics competition, and now are only one step away from competing in orbit on the International Space Station. The Zero Robotics competition, sponsored by NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), requires students to write control software for small satellite robots. The competition so far has consisted of two qualifier tournaments that were run entirely by computer simulation at MIT. Pope John Robotics and other top teams from the two qualifier tournaments have now advanced to the semi-finals of the competition. The top performing teams in the semi-finals will advance to the finals which are played aboard the International Space Station. There are 149 high school teams from across the USA and Europe competing in Zero Robotics this year. Eighteen teams advanced as captain teams to the semi-finals, Pope John among them at the fourth seed position. “We’re extremely proud that the students placed fourth nationally in the qualifiers,” said Steve Pendergrast, coach of the team. “But the next round of play will be our toughest challenge yet.” In the competition, students write a computer program to control their robot satellite and play a game defined by the competition organizers. The game is complicated, and involves maneuvering the satellite in three dimensions using math and physics ideas, all the while keeping track of what the opponent is doing and adjusting strategy accordingly. To add further complexity, the satellites have a limited fuel supply, limited amounts of electrical charge, and the computer program size must not exceed the scant memory available on the tiny satellite. “In the qualifiers, your robot had to perform well against all levels of competitor,” Pendergrast explained, “but the strategy totally changes in the semi-finals, where you are only competing against the top teams. The students must now critically think about each of their prior strategy assumptions and rewrite the program from scratch.” The semi-final tournament will take place on Nov. 28. The top nine teams from the 18 semi-finalist alliances will then compete on the International Space Station using real satellites in January. Pope John Robotics, of course, hopes to be among the finalists when the dust settles. “It would be fantastic to play the finals on the space station,” Pendergrast said, “but win or lose, the students have already learned a tremendous amount about both technology and teamwork, and that’s the real goal.”