Teams to Design Software for Small Satellites on the International Space Station

WASHINGTON — NASA is challenging high school teams to design software to program small satellites aboard the International Space Station. The competition centers on the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES.

SPHERES are bowling ball-sized spherical satellites used to test maneuvers for spacecraft performing autonomous rendezvous and docking. Three of these satellites fly inside the station’s cabin. Each is self-contained with power, propulsion, computing and navigation equipment.

The Zero-Robotics investigation, run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., is designed to inspire future scientists and engineers. The teams are asked to address challenges of satellite docking, assembly and flight formation. The 2010 Zero-Robotics Challenge expands on a limited pilot program performed in fall 2009. This expanded pilot, called HelioSPHERES, will involve high schools from across the country during the 2010 – 2011 academic year. This new education program builds critical engineering skills for students, such as problem solving, design thought process, operations training, teamwork and presentation skills.

The first 100 high school teams to register by Sept. 10 will be selected for the competition. Their full proposals are due by Sept. 14. More information and registration instructions are available at:

Twenty teams selected from the 100 candidates will compete using simulations and ground-based testing at MIT. The software of the top 10 winners will be sent to the station, and an astronaut aboard the orbiting laboratory will program the SPHERES satellites to run the students’ tests.

MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory developed the SPHERES program to provide the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA and other researchers with a long-term test bed for validating technologies critical to the operation of future satellites, docking missions and satellite autonomous maneuvers. SPHERES have been used by many organizations, including other government agencies and graduate student research groups, since the program began in 2006. The satellites provide opportunities to test a wide range of hardware and software at an affordable cost.

For additional information on NASA and MIT’s Zero-Robotics program, visit: