Pope John Robotics Team seeded first in USA Space Station finals

| 15 Feb 2012 | 10:39

    Students will program real satellite in orbit Sparta — Pope John XXIII Regional High School of Sparta was the highest scoring team in the United States during the semi-final rounds of a NASA robotics competition, and has now qualified to compete in orbit on the International Space Station (ISS) for the final round of play. 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 and a semi-finals tournament that were run entirely by computer simulation at MIT. Pope John Robotics and eight other top teams from the semi-final tournament have now advanced to the finals of the competition. The finals will no longer be a simulation: they are played in orbit aboard the ISS using real robotic satellites in zero gravity. There are 149 high school teams 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. In the semi-finals, which were played on Dec. 4, Pope John outscored every other USA team and is now seeded first for the finals, which will take place on Jan. 23. “The students worked very hard on their semi-finals programming, and we thought we had some chance of qualifying for the finals,” said Steve Pendergrast, coach of the team, “but we never expected to be the number one seed. That exceeded all expectations!” 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. Members of the Pope John Robotics team will travel to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to view a live feed of the competition broadcast from the ISS on Jan. 23. An astronaut will serve as the referee of the games, which are played with small spherical satellites propelled by jets of air in zero gravity. One of those satellites will be controlled by software written by the Pope John Robotics team. “Qualifying for the ISS finals is an amazing opportunity for the students,” Pendergrast said. “How many high school kids can say they’ve programmed a satellite that was actually in orbit?”