5 mins read 24 Sep 2020

Galen VEX team’s winning code to head to the space station

Secondary students from Galen Catholic College in Wangaratta, Victoria have been selected to represent Australia in the inaugural Kibo Robotic Programming Challenge. The team’s winning code will be sent to the International Space Station on 8 October to program the NASA’s Astrobee robot through a series of challenges.

The Galen VEX team – (L-R) Rutvik Chaudhary (Charles Sturt University, Galen Alumni), Mitchell Hobbs (Year 11), Jorja O’Connor (Year 10), Ryan Falconer (Year 11)

A meteor has crashed into the International Space Station (ISS). There is an air leak on the Kibo Module and space junk is everywhere. The only one who can navigate through the carnage and fix the leak with a well-aimed laser blast is the Astrobee robot. This was the (fictional) scenario of the first Kibo Robot Programming Challenge and one the Galen VEX team took on with gusto to become the Australian winning team.

The inaugural challenge is an initiative of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and facilitated in Australia by the One Giant Leap Australia Foundation. Seven countries are involved in the challenge – Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh. The winners from each country will now have the opportunity to send their code to the ISS to complete a series of tasks using the actual Astrobee robot.

15 Australian teams from both high schools and universities signed up for the Kibo challenge. Galen VEX not only submitted the most comprehensive report, but it was also the only Australian team to successfully get the Astrobee robot functioning properly inside the virtual simulator.

Jorja and Ryan from the Galan VEX team (Credit: Galen VEX)

The Challenge

The winning code needs to move the Astrobee autonomously through a series of tasks visiting multiple locations within the Kibo module on the ISS. The Astrobee needs to scan and decode a series of QR codes to find the location of the next QR code within the series. 

This leads to the final destination where a laser beam must be fired at the target. There are a few more obstacles thrown in along the way, with space junk floating around in the challenge scenario, the Astrobee needs to avoid the ‘keep out’ zones.

“What excites me about the challenge is that it’s programming in a micro-gravity situation and not just on the ground.” said Galan VEX team member, Jorga O’Connor (year 10).

Each team has been working in a simulated environment but on 8 October, the code for each country’s winning team will be sent up to Astronaut Commander Chris Cassidy on the International Space Station (ISS). Linked in via satellite, Commander Cassidy will release the Astrobee to allow each team’s code to take control of the robot to complete the challenge.

Team member Ryan Falconer (year 11) said, “We have been working with an online simulator that crashes as soon as your code has a problem, so you get very little feedback, and it is back to the drawing board to problem solve again. There is also no direct path to each QR code as they have thrown in Keep Out Zones that you have to dodge.”

To complete the challenge, the students needed to learn high-level programming skills along with creative problem solving, teamwork and communication.

On 8 Oct the teams will meet (online) with former JAXA Astronaut, Naoko Yamazaki and JAXA Astronaut Kimiya Yui, who will be hosting and MC’ing the event from JAXA’s mission control. Had it not been for COVD19, the teams would be travelling over to JAXA to watch it all live. Instead, all eight teams will meet via video linkup with JAXA mission control, and Commander Cassidy on the ISS, to watch the event live.  

The final winner of the challenge will be announced mid-October after JAXA has finalised all the data collected and compiled the recording of the Oct 8th event. 

The regional Victorian team kicked off the project between the 2 COVID-19 lockdowns in Victoria and were able to work on the project together at school during lunchtimes. When the second lockdown was announced, the team moved online and worked as an online team using email, phone calls, chats and zoom meetings to complete the challenge.

Maree Timms, e-Learning Coordinator at Galen Catholic College helped the students coordinate the project.

“The idea that country kids can do something like this is something special. And if we can do it, it means that anyone with determination can do it. It’s about learning and having a go and anything is possible.”

Expedition 59 Flight Engineer David Saint-Jacques tests the free-flying Astrobee robotic assistant. Credit: NASA Johnson

About the Astrobee

Astrobee is NASA’s free-flying robotic system designed to help astronauts complete routine tasks. There are three cubed-shaped Astrobees aptly named Honey, Queen and Bumble and they have only been on the International Space Station since July 2019. The docking station was installed in the Japanese Experiment Module on the space station in February, 2019 where the Astrobees can recharge.

Along with their other duties, the robotic system also serves as a research platform that can be outfitted and programmed to carry out experiments in microgravity - helping NASA to learn more about how robotics can benefit astronauts in space.

The robots use electric fans as a propulsion system that allows them to fly through the microgravity environment of the station. Cameras and sensors help them to navigate their surroundings and they also carry a perching arm that allows them to grasp station handrails to conserve energy or to grab and hold items.