Bay Area Teens Launch Sattelites at the International Space Station

A programming competition by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has two teams of Bay Area teens controlling robots on the International Space Station this coming Monday.

The project comes as part of the finals of the Zero Robotics SPHERE Challenge, following months of trials and three qualifying stages for the high school students. Participants in the challenge are to fly miniature satellites with the help of computer programs they themselves have written.

The competition is divided into twelve “alliances,” each consisting of three teams, in both U.S. and EU tournaments. The precision and strategic control of the satellites of each team is determined by a panel of judges.

“To have your code moving something on the International Space Station is like nothing I ever imagined,” said 17-year-old Eric Bakan, a high school senior. His team, called the “Cheesy Poofs,” qualified as one of the top teams in the U.S. ‘Alliance.’

Another team’s co-captain Shilpa Yarlagadda, 15, said “When I was little, I always wanted to go to space. Now I’m able to get back in to that.”

The competition does in fact bring the competitors ‘back in to that.’ The SPHERES, or Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites, are soccer-ball sized robots that will be controlled solely by the student’s programs once placed in starting position by a U.S. astronaut at the station. Points will be granted based on flight patterns as a result of both math-based strategy and programming.

There is no grant or fund waiting for the first place winners. “Getting to the space station is pretty much the reward,” explained Jacob Katz, one of the competition organizers. However, the winning teams gains an incredible experience, bragging rights, and official NASA flight patches for those who have traveled to and from space.

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