7 mins read 02 Dec 2020

Who coded a NASA robot on the ISS? Galen Vex did!

On 8 October, The Galen Vex team, secondary students from Galen Catholic College in Wangaratta, watched a live video link-up of their code controlling NASA’s Astrobee robot on the International Space Station (ISS). The Australian team was one of only three teams from across eight countries/regions to successfully complete the mission in the inaugural Kibo Robotics Programming Challenge.

The Galen VEX team – (L-R) Brett Webber (VEX Teacher), Rutvik Chaudhary (Charles Sturt University, Galen Alumni), Malay Shah (Mentor), Jorja O’Connor (Year 10), Jorja O’Connor (Year 10), Ryan Falconer (Year 11), Mitchell Hobbs (Year 11), Maree Timms, e-Learning Coordinator, Galen Catholic College.

On the evening of Thursday, 8 October, the Galen Vex team joined the video link-up with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the astronauts on the ISS, NASA’s Ames Research Centre along with the other final six teams in the challenge. They all watched on nervously as each of the qualifying teams had their code run to control NASA’s Astrobee Robot on the International Space Station (ISS). The code was sent up to the ISS Commander Chris Cassidy by NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California and it was Commander Cassidy who was on hand throughout the 5-hour event on the ISS. 

The fictional scenario of the inaugural Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) challenge could easily be true to life - a small meteor has hit the ISS causing damage and there is an air leak on the Kibo Module. With space junk everywhere, the Astrobee robot needs to be programmed to go to the air leak while avoiding the obstacles, and then shoot a laser at the target to seal the leak. 

Each team had previously run their code using simulations, however this would be the first time the code would be run live, using the actual Astrobee on the ISS, within a microgravity environment. 

The Challenge on the ISS

Nerves were running high on the night as the Galen Vex team’s code was the second last to be run. Only two of the five teams before them, Thailand and Indonesia, had successfully completed the challenge. As the Galen Vex team watched on, they saw their code executed and the Astrobee floated up towards the roof and then turned in the opposite direction as expected. After waiting a minute or two, nothing had changed. They returned the Astrobee to the start and reran the code. Again the Astrobee did not behave as expected but floated to the roof. It seemed their code had not been successful. 

The last team in the challenge was Singapore. Their code was run and again, the Astrobee behaved in the same way as the Galen Vex team’s. A voice from NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California came through the link-up “That’s a copy-cat of the last run. Something is not right here. Let us look into it from ground base.”.

With new batteries and reboot, the Astrobee was ready to go again with the last three teams having their code re-run. 

This time the Galen Vex team’s code shone brightly and cheers rang out as the Astrobee successfully completed the challenge, only the third team to do so. 

For the Galen Vex team of Rutvik Chaudhary (Charles Sturt University, Galen Alumni), Mitchell Hobbs (Year 11), Jorja O’Connor (Year 10), Ryan Falconer (Year 11), it was a rollercoaster of a night, from excitement to disappointment then pure exhalation as their code successfully completed the mission. 

“On our first run of the code and the Astrobee failed to perform, the disappointment was palpable in the room, however, the experience and sheer excitement kept us running on a high. When our team’s code finally worked, the energy in the room was off the roof. The moment ‘Mission Complete’ showed up on the screen the rush was incredible, all the hard work and worries had been washed away.” said Jorja, Year 10.

Galen Vex team celebrating over Video link-up when their code proved successful.

The final results of the Kibo Robotic Programming Challenge saw Indonesia come in first place with an accurate laser hitting the target. Thailand came second hitting the target's edge while Australia was within 20cm of the target, putting them in third place.

Ryan said, “The night of the final competition was such an eye-opening experience, from listening to (Commander) Chris Cassidy answering our questions, to our code making a robot fly around the ISS. It was truly amazing.”

Following the event, the team had a bonus surprise. 

The Final Results

“The amazing result of the night was topped off with an eye-opening and interesting talk with Andrea, from the European space control centre in Cologne, Germany,” Jorja said. 

Australian engineer Andrea Boyd works at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, where she is a flight controller for ISS. She had been watching the challenge and sending messages of support and pictures of her view from EuroCom. Following the challenge, she gave the team a Skype call and chatted for an hour about her career pathway and working with the astronauts on the ISS.

Andrea Boyd watched the challenge from Germany from EuroCom.

“The skype call with Andrea at the end of the night was really cool as we found out the fields she has been in and learned that you can have an educational background in anything to be a part of the Space Industry. The whole program has given everyone a chance to think about the possibilities in the future.” Rutvik said. 

The Kibo Robotics Programming Challenge was facilitated in Australia by the One Giant Leap Australia Foundation and Australia was one of eight countries/regions involved in the challenge along with Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, and Bangladesh.

One Giant Leap Australia is an organisation that is focused on providing immersive learning experiences in the STEM fields, as well as supporting students in learning critical analysis and creative thinking skills. 

Bob Carpenter from One Giant Leap said, “Very well done. Galen Vex persevered and devised ‘out of the box’ methods for working Quaternion mathematics to accomplish this real-time leading-edge coding challenge. This navigation system will be the system for travel on other planets and space travel. This team is at the leading edge of Australian students and space exploration.

JAXA is already planning the second Kibo Robotic Programming Challenge, although no details have been released as yet. 

Watch the event and see the Galen Vex team’s code in action at 1h:14m.

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 station's microgravity environment. 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.