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Participate in a Robotics Competition—in Space!

What could possibly make an already super cool robotics competition even better? The zero-gravity environment of space!

What could possibly make an already super cool robotics competition even better? The zero-gravity environment of space!

NASA and DARPA, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, TopCoder, and Aurora Flight Sciences, recently announced the Zero Robotics competition, an event open to all high schools in the United States that form a team and complete the application process.

Zero Robotics is a student software competition that takes the idea of a robotics competition to new heights—literally.  The robots are basketball-sized satellites called SPHERES, and they look like something straight out of Star Wars.  The competition is kicked off by a challenging problem conjured up by DARPA and NASA.  After multiple rounds of simulation and ground competition, a final tournament will be held onboard the International Space Station!  The 27 finalists will have their robotic programs run by an astronaut in the microgravity environment of space.

The goal is to build critical engineering skills for students, such as problem solving, design thought process, operations training, and team work. Teams participate by programming a SPHERES satellite using a simplified programming environment to achieve the game objectives while competing or collaborating with other contestants.  The tournament stages during the fall season give the teams an opportunity to develop and improve their programs and test them with and against the other teams.

This competition embodies three initiatives that are priorities of the Obama Administration:

  • President Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign, which was launched with the goal of improving the participation and performance of America’s students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM);
  • Using challenges to increase participation or achieve progress in a certain area of need;
  • And the President’s recently announced National Robotics Initiative, focused on strengthening the robotics capabilities of our Nation.

All three of these initiatives involve the Federal government, educational institutions, and private corporations working together on America’s science and engineering challenges.

If you are interested in participating in Zero Robotics this fall but haven’t already sent in an application, the deadline for teams to apply is September 5.  The application is available online at

So if you think that robotics is cool, and space is cool, then get involved in the 2011 Zero Robotics Challenge. You, your child, or your student could control a satellite in space!

Chuck Thorpe is Assistant Director for Advanced Manufacturing and Robotics at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy