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Posted: Sep 21, 2009  12:47

Robotics Team to Pilot SPHERES Competition


At Bonners Ferry High School, being good at science is becoming cooler and cooler. Not only has the Robotics Team continued to grow and develop, but the students' increasing interest in science and technology has led to a new development for those who want to go to "space, the final frontier." In tandem with a group comprised of students from Coeur d'Alene High School and Post Falls High School, the Badgers Robotics Team will be participating in the first ever pilot project to become beta testers for a program with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Aeronautics and Astronautics Department.

"MIT would like to develop a FIRST-style competition with the SPHERES program," said Robotics Team Advisor Ed Katz. "Basically, we will be presented with a problem to move the SPHERES satellite to a predetermined location. We are going to do it virtually first and if we can solve the problem, some of our students who are selected will go to MIT in Boston to run the program on the SPHERES test floor. If that works, the students will then have the potential to move the satellite "for real" with NASA. Students will likely visit only for the final test, which will be on the International Space Station."

As explained by Jacob Katz, a doctoral candidate at MIT who has been working with the Synchronized Position Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellite (SPHERES) program, the pilot program sponsored by MIT is geared toward getting high school students involved in activities in space. Using the SPHERES hardware program, Jacob said that the students will be challenged to write a code, implement that code on a SPHERES satellite and complete a simulation demonstration. This mock competition will give MIT an idea as to how an actual high school competition will work by getting the students' input on the program in order to perfect the competition before it is opened up to a nation-wide audience. Jacob anticipates that MIT will launch a full scale competition in the summer of 2010 similar to the FIRST Robotics competitions that BFHS Robotics team has competed in so well in the past.

For the mock competition, Jacob explained that the teams will go through several scenarios wherein they will be presented with a simulation involving two animated satellites in a confined area and are asked to figure out ways to move the animated satellite into each of the four corners while not colliding with a second, fixed animated satellite. This simulation will assess the team's coding skills, introduce the SPHERES program and allow the students to practice in order to determine whether the game will need to be modified. After this practice sequence, the teams will receive instructions for the "real" competition. The teams will work to solve the satellite problem and will present their conclusions to MIT later this fall. If the solution generated by the team works, they may deliver it to NASA in early December with an International Space Station Test Session to take place within the month.

As Jacob worked with the assembled students and adult volunteers who will be helping with the SPHERES competition, it was so refreshing to listen to the level of intelligence as well as cognitive and emotional maturity that was demonstrated by the teenagers who attended the presentation as they conversed with Jacob about the SPHERES program. There is no doubt that these current Badgers will be the scientific and technological leaders of the future and we wish the team the best of luck as they embark on the next phase of the project.


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