Pope John Robotics Team rockets toward Space Station competition

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:55

    Sparta — Pope John XXIII Regional High School of Sparta placed eighth in a national robotics competition, which puts them one step closer to 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 includes two qualifier tournaments that are run entirely by computer simulation at MIT. The top teams from the two qualifier tournaments will be selected to compete using real satellites in orbit around the earth on the International Space Station later this year. There are 149 high school teams from across the USA competing in Zero Robotics this year. The top 27 teams, based on a blended score from the two simulated qualifier tournaments, will be selected to compete on the International Space station in December. The Pope John Robotics Team placed eighth in the first qualifying tournament, which puts them squarely on a trajectory to be one of the 27 finalist teams for the space-based competition. A good showing in the second simulation tournament will literally put the team’s robot software in orbit, where they will battle the other national finalists in zero gravity. “It’s cool to program satellites, but the real goal is to develop critical thinking skills,” said Steve Pendergrast, coach of the team. “Pope John Robotics students are challenged with limited resources, limited time, and limited information about what opponents might do, but still must solve a very difficult problem by combining abstract math and physics concepts with a concrete strategy that they must devise.” In the competition, students write a computer program to control their satellite and play a game defined by the competition organizers. The game is complicated, and involves maneuvering the satellite in 3 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. The second and final qualifier tournament will begin on Oct. 28, and the list of 27 finalist teams selected for the space station competition will be released a few days later.