New Space and Tech

NASA High Schools Competition: Software Designs Will Program Satellites on the ISS

By Keith Cowing
April 8, 2013
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NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., have selected 24 high schools to participate in a new science, technology, engineering, and math education program. The teams will design software to program small satellites aboard the International Space Station. The Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES, are three volley ball-sized spherical satellites that fly inside the space station’s cabin to test advanced maneuvers for spacecraft, like formation flying and autonomous rendezvous and docking. Each contains its own power, propulsion, computing, and navigation equipment.
The selections are part of the Zero-Robotics investigation, which is run by MIT and designed to inspire future scientists and engineers. Students write their own algorithms to solve a problem important to future missions. This year’s pilot program, “HelioSPHERES,” allows selected high schools to compete against each other and helps students build critical engineering skills, such as problem solving, design thought process, operations training, teamwork and presentation skills.

The competition was open to all accredited high schools in the United States and attracted 48 applications. The 24 high schools are from 19 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington. The list of schools is available at

The 24 teams will compete in elimination rounds against each other using online 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:

For more information on the Zero-Robotics “HelioSPHERES” competition, selection process, and upcoming activities, visit:

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.