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March 06, 2012

DARPA, NASA Sponsor Crowdsourcing of Satellite Rendezvous Software

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

DARPA and NASA are sponsoring a challenge for robotics software for automated space docking or satellite servicing. Four winning submissions will be tested aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in zero gravity using onboard SPHERES satellite hardware.   Yes, you could get the chance to program a satellite!

The Autonomous Space Capture Challenge contest is being run by MIT (News - Alert) Space Systems Laboratory, TopCoder and Aurora Flight Sciences, with DARPA and NASA underwriting the effort. Open to all participants, "but especially teams from high schools and colleges" – have to get the STEM plug in –  competitors will program an active satellite or "Tender" to synchronize its motion with and capture a tumbling, passive space object or "POD."

 The tournament will have four week-long rounds, during which teams will test their solutions and submit them for scoring and publication on the leader board. At the end of each week, the best submission will be published on the Zero Robotics website for public reference and use in the next round.

The winner from each week will be included in a demonstration aboard the ISS in late May with the best performing finalist being awarded an additional "commendation" of some sort; the press release doesn't say if you get a piece of paper or a gaudy plaque.  Winners also get the ability to watch the test runs in real time, either via the web or in person at the MIT control center if they cover travel costs.

Major cool factor here are the SPHERES satellites, a trio of free-flying bowling ball satellites onboard ISS designed to test code for automated rendezvous and docking.   The SPHERES fly around in the space station performing flight formations. Each satellite is a self-contained unit with power, propulsion, computer and navigation equipment.

Competition opens up on March 28, with submissions closing on April 4, 11, 18, and 25. A typical team would be composed of five or more students, plus a mentor able to supervise the team, a mentor with programming experiences, and two computers with Internet access and capable of running the Adobe (News - Alert) Flash plugin. There's no charge for entering a team. Students can create, edit, share, save, simulate and submit code via web browser on the website.

DARPA wants the autonomous rendezvous code for its Phoenix  communications satellite recycling project, with a goal to fly the first mission in 2015. NASA has plenty of applications for the code, including a Mars sample return mission, where an in-orbit vehicle would have to rendezvous and pickup a sample canister "POD" to bring it back to Earth.

Edited by Carrie Schmelkin

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